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Is Europe building Big Brother?

A lawsuit in Ireland challenges the European Union's aim to collect and store personal data, even as the United Arab Emirates threatens to block BlackBerry until the company makes it easier to monitor information and the Obama administration seeks to circumvent judicial oversight to collect US data online.

By Correspondent / August 3, 2010

Christian Engström of Sweden’s Pirate Party in his seat at the European Parliament. Mr. Engström is concerned that EU bureaucrats are deciding issues of civil liberty that should be debated by elected officials.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters/File

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Dublin, Ireland

What the European Union is giving to Internet users and online privacy activists with one hand, it's taking away with the other.

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The EU has tighter restrictions than the United States does on the collection, use, and sale of data by online companies, but also requires Internet service providers to store personal data in case the government ever wants to investigate an individual user. The European Parliament is currently considering passing a law called "Smile29" that would require the Google search engine – which processes billions of searches a month on the Continent – to retain data on users as well.

The EU effort is just the latest of government's around the globe seeking to glean more about their citizens from their online behavior. The United Arab Emirates has threatened to shut BlackBerry service unless the company provides information to help government security services circumvent its encryption. The US, too, is seeking to make snooping online easier. In late July, the Obama administration proposed new laws to allow the government to look at browser histories and obtain the e-mail addresses of citizens without judicial oversight.

To critics, the EU laws and the behavior of other governments amount to a surveillance land-grab. In the case of Europe, that's prompted a groundswell of opposition across Europe. Now a group in Ireland is challenging the new regime – seeking permission from the Irish courts to sue the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to strike down new Irish laws designed to bring the country into line with broader European standards.

If Digital Rights Ireland, which argues that the laws violate the European Convention on Human Rights, wins, it would set the stage for successful challenges to the rules across Europe.

"The main thing we want to see is our data retention laws repealed," says T.J. McIntyre, a law lecturer at University College Dublin and head of Digital Rights Ireland. Mr. McIntyre says the laws criminalize ordinary citizens.

Online privacy has become a key civil liberty battleground. Face­book and Google are amassing colos­sal amounts of data about users' thoughts, desires, and impulses, which busi­nesses covet and pay handsomely for.

Across Europe, a backlash against the storage of private data is growing. Civil society groups like the European Federation of Journalists have criticized the practice, and in Germany almost 35,000 people, including Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, sued their own government over the issue.

"There is a real problem in Europe today. It is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to a private life. That fundamental right has to extend into digital life," says Christian Engström, a member of the European Parliament for Sweden's controversial Pirate Party, elected on a platform of digital rights.

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