A new global study commissioned by Telefonica reveals that the ‘millennial generation’ – 18-30 year olds – feel pretty much in control of their personal online data, but the Spanish giant nonetheless is calling for data protection reform in order to extend digital confidence to other age groups.

“Policy makers should take a risk-based approach which considers not only how data is collected but also how it is used,” said Dr Richard Benjamins, Telefonica’s group director of big data, speaking at a summit organised by European Voice, a Brussels-based newspaper. “They should aim to protect people first, rather than data, and must prevent the use of data in ways that might negatively impact individual people’s lives.”

Transparency on how data is used, argued Benjamins, is key to promoting the digital economy. He suggested that some of the digital confidence exhibited by people in the 18-30 age group may in fact be misplaced.

“I find it hard to see how even these tech-savvy millennials could always understand how value flows through the data ecosystem.” he said. “Transparency is really important. If you understand what is happening to your data, you can have some control over it. Transparency is a better way than unread terms and conditions and check-box consent. It’s the key to digital confidence.”

The survey, which comprises more than 6,700 quantitative interviews among millennials spread across 18 countries in three regions – including the US, Western Europe and Latin America – found that nearly 80 per cent of this age group felt in control of their personal online data.

That’s not to say they feel totally secure. The Telefónica study also found that eight out of 10 millennials were worried about getting hacked or someone stealing their information online (which seems to belie those feelings of control), although nearly 90 per cent are indeed taking active steps to protect themselves online.

“Gaining the public’s trust and confidence must be the prime focus of the data protection legal framework reforms,” added Benjamins, “which will be pivotal in opening the door to a European digital economy that is innovative, competitive and successful.”

Telefonica said it had identified three key areas of focus for the incoming Commission “to create a top-class Internet infrastructure for Europe”.

The first is an ‘open data ecosystem’. “Data needs to be made available by organisations in both the public and the private sector,” said Benjamins, “but what are needed most of all are open ecosystems based on open data – ecosystems that enable new ideas and help new businesses to start up.”

To help make that happen, Telefonica announced it will bring the expertise of Wayra, its start-up accelerator, to the formation of a new European partnership to develop an open data ecosystem. With €7 million funding from the European Commission – and supported by NGOs, educational institutions, ICT industry bodies and media organisations – the project will create a start-up incubator for companies working with open data in Europe and aims to support and fund 50-100 new open data businesses.

The other two areas of focus identified by Telefonica to boost Europe’s data economy are better data protection rules (which apply to all services in the same way) and safe data-sharing mechanisms beyond Europe’s borders.