“Democracy” by David Bernet is an exceptional film. Who would think that the birthing of an EU law could provide enough drama to power a feature-length documentary, given that the Brussels bureaucracy machine is commonly seen as a closed, cold and robotic community out of touch with real people’s concerns.
Mild spoiler warning: Everybody knows the outcome of the GDPR lawmaking process, and I don’t think that suspense over that is why one would want to see this film; still, I want to mention that this post mentions how it ends.The film, prominently featuring MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht in charge of preparing the EU parliament’s report on a commission proposal and his assistant Ralf Bendrath, tells the story of how a citizen rights activist MEP from the Green party gets entrusted with developing a law proposal on a European regulation on data privacy. It not only illustrates how law-making takes place in Brussels (reportedly the first film team ever to be allowed to move and record so freely within these circles), but also highlights that the conflict of interests between a data-hungry globalized industry and a civil society concerned with the loss of control over their data is not a question of black and white, but of compromise.
“Personal data belongs to the person” is the premise that EU commissioner Viviane Reding’s 2012 initiative for a data privacy law is built upon. To the shock of industry lobbyists, the leading figure in negotiating the draft in the EU parliament is a young politician who, above all, wants to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected.
A conflict between lobbyists, human right activists and other stakeholders unfolds. And the film portraits a politician who not only copes with the struggle to consider thousands of change requests, but even further tightens the citizens’ rights aspect in his drafts. And if it wouldn’t have been for the June 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, who knows would a consensus within the EU instances ever have been reachable.
As everybody is aware, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would eventually be approved - in an amended form from what Albrecht and his team present in the final committee meeting, reflecting industry desires to weaken some regulations at the cost of the citizens’ control over their data.
The GDPR has been in effect since May 2016 and while national legislative processes are still under way and those affected prepare for its implementation, it remains yet to be seen what is going its impact in practice as it becomes enforceable in May 2018. What can be said already today - and this is the story this documentary tells - is that the EU directive on data protection is an exceptional law, encasing human rights in a regulation on one of the most critical questions of our times - in a field that as “the new oil” is at the core of the interest of industries and hence also the European economy as a whole. Or as Antoine Fobe, from the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) puts it:
Mr. Balboni, I would like to start by something you said and that is often mentioned: that “personal data are the money of the digital economy”. What is happening today and what the future regulation would like to address is that people are simply taking money from your pocket without asking for your consent, without letting you know how much you pay and where the money goes to.
Watching such complex compromising process unfold is fascinating, and the reason Bernet’s film has since received various awards and recommendations.