European TV Giants Launch Data Protection Group

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Amid debate over a massive data breach at Facebook, RTL and ProSiebenSat.1 set up what they say will be a secure system that guarantees the protection of user data online.

European television giants RTL Group and ProSiebenSat.1, together with German internet provider United Internet, on Thursday launched an independent foundation designed to protect the personal data of users online.

The European netID Foundation aims to create an industry standard for Europe that will allow users to protect their personal data from unwanted use or exploitation by advertising or social media companies.

The group was set up to help European companies comply with new regulations, that take effect in May, which will tighten Europe's data protection laws. But the announcement is particularly timely given the scandal engulfing Facebook, which this week admitted to a major data breach involving information from some 50 million of its users. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday admitted “making mistakes” following media reports that data mining and political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica illegally used the Facebook data to target American voters in its work for Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign.

The new European foundation plans to establish a secure open source log in system, called a “netID” for European users. Any website operating in Europe will be able to use the system which, the companies say, will give users complete control over their personal data. Personal data will not be shared between account providers and internet services until after the user has given their consent. Users will be able to see what information is being shared with what companies and can revoke access at any time. In a statement on Thursday, the foundation said it was open to developing the netID standard with other European or international initiatives.

RTL and ProSieben, two of Europe's largest media companies, set up the initiative to make it easier for European websites to comply with new legislation that will require companies to get user approval before collecting or sharing their online data. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force on May 25 and will replace the current patchwork of national data protection laws. It will make protection of user data the default for online commerce in Europe and will bolster the requirement for explicit and informed consent by users before their data is mined or processed. Users will also have the right to withdraw that consent at any time.

What has been hailed by online privacy advocates is a threat to the business model of many online companies that rely on user data, and the targeting advertising it allows, to finance the often free-to-use services they offer consumers. RTL and ProSieben, which run huge ad-supported television networks, are backing the netID system as a way for companies to easily comply with the new laws in a way that does not alienate users.

Together with United Internet, one of Germany's leading internet service providers, the companies say they reach roughly 50 million internet users and already have the critical size needed for the success of the project. Internet companies big and small are likely to face increased scrutiny in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. European and U.S. lawmakers have called for stricter regulation of how online companies access and exploit the data their users generate.