Get to know Mme Morin Desailly, French Senate’s Rapporteur

With her black leather jacket, chic haircut and cheeky smile Catherine Morin Desailly defies the stereotype of French Senators as learned elders who deliberate over affairs of state in the grandeur of the Luxembourg Palace, Paris. Senator Morin Desailly is a defender of digital citizens’ rights. She not only looks like a member of the younger generation (surprisingly she was born in 1960) but she clearly understands the ‘digital natives’ born since 1990 who grew up with the Internet.

Totally fluent in English – she was a former teacher of the language – she also has formidable knowledge about Internet governance. She is the Senate’s Digital Rapporteur, taking a lead in its hearings on future regulation of the online realm, including Netopia’s presentation of its 75-page report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical?.

With other members of the Senate who have special responsibility for these matters, Mme Morin Desailly has been hearing from thought leaders such as Oxford University’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Netopia’s Peter Warren and Per Strömbäck for several months. They have already formulated one new law based on the perceived crisis of trust in online privacy and the need to enshrine human rights on the Internet. This initiative, called “le droit à l’oubli” in French, provides for a “right to be forgotten”. In other words, each citizen would have the legal right to delete his or her own personal information and data held in official or commercial files, or to set time limits on how long it can be stored.

“This is a bit scary” she tells me in an interview. “It’s hypermnesia, knowing everything about everyone. We don’t want to see big data as negative but we are the defenders of rights and liberties. We want to make sure that progress is achieved.” Full interview here.

In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice has now acknowledged this “right to be forgotten” by ruling against Google in the case of Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish man who took legal action to remove from the search engine an auction notice for repossession of his home dating back to 1998.

This will strengthen the French Senate’s position when “le droit à l’oubli” is debated in the National Assembly, the main French law-making body. It is a cause that Catherine Morin Desailly has championed since 2010 and she engaged with the debate more recently when Oxford University Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of the book ‘Delete’ gave evidence to the Senate. He argues that big data creates new risks to the globally-recognised human right to a private life.

But whilst Madame Catherine Morin Desailly has many eminent supporters amongst Internet gurus, politicians in France – and elsewhere – are yet to be convinced. She represents the opposition centre-liberal party, the UDI. Any new law will need the backing of the Socialist-led administration of Francois Hollande. To win hearts and minds, Mme Morin Desailly tweets prolifically @C_MorinDesailly and frequently posts on Facebook. She often highlights issues from her home city of Rouen in Normandy where she has served as a local councillor and attended university to prepare for the Ecole Normale (one of the major Paris institutions for fast-tracking talented students into the civil service and public life.) It could be said that ‘think global, act local’ is her watchword.

Jane Whyatt