GDPR and the Europeans' Search for Happiness

By: Sonal Somaiya

Though the latest technology has the power to considerably improve our quality of life, there is some haze around the question of how it impacts our happiness. Though tools like social media and networking websites have the power to connect us beyond physicality, they can have an adverse effect on our minds and bodies. Each step forward in technological innovation also can have a negative associated impact. And who’s really watching?

Answer: the Europeans. This week, we saw our inboxes flooded with privacy updates from many of the websites and big tech companies whom we frequent. This wasn’t an arbitrary change, rather a product of the new European Union law – General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – implemented this week. The law restricts the amount of information companies with a presence in the EU can collect, store or process. Though this law technically only applies to any organization that collects data on EU citizens, this impacts virtually every global technology company and has set an international standard of responsibility in the tech world. Even in the past, the Europeans have charged fines worth billions of dollars to technology companies.

This begs the question as to why the Europeans were the first to regulate the considerable power and influence technology companies have amassed over the past decade instead of the U.S. which churns out more innovation from the Palo Alto area than even some countries. I argue that it’s the European commitment to happiness and a balanced life that informs their aversion to the rapid and, at times, irresponsible development of technology in our day to day lives.

At even the most basic measure of happiness, many EU nations outrank the U.S.  11 out of the 15 top ranking countries according to the World Happiness Report from 2015 – 2017 were European. The U.S. rolled in at a mere 18th place. Perhaps the Europeans don’t want to give up their year-long maternity leaves just because technology has enabled us to remotely log in to work from wherever we are.

This overall hesitation to allow technology to truly infiltrate every aspect of our lives is critical because a) Europe is itself becoming a huge technology hub as the U.S. market becomes saturated with companies and capital and b) Europe is a huge and indispensable market for global technology companies. As we move into a post GDPR world, we will likely see a continued need for technology companies to both appease their customers most sensitive to tech’s impingement on their happiness, wellness and independence while also providing career options and opportunities for transformative change in the way we work and live.