European Union (EU) justice commissioner Viviane Reding has called for fresh legislation to ensure web service providers, such as Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Google, cannot hold their customers' data ransom.
Reding – who is also a vice president of the European Commission (EC) – called for new data protection regulation during a speech to the Justice Council. She argued that service providers should not be allowed to forcibly tie users to their platforms by locking their data to them.
"The right to the portability of personal data in the private sector is an essential element of the proposal. Citizens should be able to transfer their data from one service provider, such as a social network, to another – just as they are able to keep their mobile number when changing telecoms operators," she said.
She said the legislation would benefit the European economy and herald a new boom in innovation within the web services industry.
"Choice drives competition. Data portability empowers citizens to decide what happens to their data and grants them tangible rights vis-à-vis businesses. It gives them real control over their personal data. This approach integrates the development of the online environment without encroaching on the technological neutrality of the Regulation," she said.
Reding's calls come during a heated debate about the way technology companies collect and use customer data. This began in June 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents to the press proving that the US National Security Agency (NSA) and UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) were siphoning vast amounts of customer data from numerous internet companies.
Aside from this, the companies generally use data to create profiles of their customers and push targeted advertising to them, or spot emerging trends in the market. The tactic has proven so successful that IBM CEO Virginia Rometty listed customer data as the "natural resource" of the 21st century, during a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.
Reding supported the creation of fresh legislation to help control how companies store and use their customers' data, outlined by the Commission in 2013.
"The Commission has already proposed to expand the scope of the protection. Individuals will not only be protected against formal ‘decisions' but also against 'measures' producing legal effects or significantly affecting them," she said.
"The Regulation strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of citizens and the need to encourage the emergence of innovative business models. Regulating the manner in which such profiles are created and used adds red tape for businesses and interferes with their research and innovation abilities."
Reding has been a constant supporter of reforms designed to protect citizens' privacy in the digital age. She announced plans in January to reform Europe's data protection laws to increase the amount that authorities can fine companies that fall foul of the regulation.