Leading EU party wants to ditch EU-US data agreement

29.10.13 @ 18:33

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - The European Parliament’s largest political group, the centre-right EPP, wants to end an EU-US data exchange agreement known as Safe Harbour.

  • Facebook's new custom-built Data Center based in Prineville, Oregon - the company has signed up to Safe Harbour (Photo: Tom Raftery)

German centre-right MEP Manfred Weber, who is the group’s vice-president, told this website on Tuesday (29 October) in an email that the “EPP group wants to terminate the agreement as it stands now and negotiate new rules.”

He said American IT companies are not respecting the terms of the agreement, meant to protect the personal data of EU citizens.

“There have been doubts if the firms always fully comply with the rules, not just since the revelations about the NSA activities. This has to stop,” he said.

He added that clear ground rules are needed to protect the personal data of EU citizens from the US-based companies.

“That is why we are saying ‘yes’ to a strict EU data protection legislation but ‘no’ to the Safe Harbour Agreement in its present form,” he said.

Critics say the so-called Safe Harbour agreement is full of loopholes and rarely enforced by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Around 3,000 US companies have signed up to the self-certification scheme, which is only enforceable once the company makes a promise to adhere to a handful of privacy principles.

An annual compliance check by an independent body is not mandatory. Those which opt-out of the an independent review are required to review themselves.

The agreement, which excludes financial services, transport, and telecommunications sectors, was signed over a decade ago between the FTC and the European Commission.

A European Parliament civil liberties committee earlier this month revealed that one in seven companies lie about belonging to the agreement.

“At the time, they [EPP] wanted to uphold it [Safe Harbour],” said Dutch liberal Sophie in 't Veld.

The parliament last week passed a non-binding resolution to scrap a separate Swift agreement, which involves the transfer of bank data between the US and the EU.

“The German MEPs wanted to keep the Swift agreement, so it seems they’ve come to higher insights fairly rapidly,” she noted.

For her part, EU commissioner for justice Viviane Reding raised concerns over the agreement in a speech delivered at a trade conference in Washington DC.

She noted that “inter-operability and self-regulation is not enough” to restore the trust the American’s have lost in the EU since the on-going NSA revelations.

"The existing scheme has been criticised by European industry and questioned by European citizens: they say it is little more than a patch providing a veil of legitimacy for the US firms using it," said Reding.

Her department is set to issue an analysis of the Safe Harbour before the end of year.

Meanwhile, a handful of MEPs from the civil liberties committee are in Washington DC as part of the overall inquiry into the electronic mass surveillance of EU citizens by the NSA.

The nine-member delegation, led by British centre-left MEP Claude Moraes, are set to discuss the agreement with US federal trade commissioner on Wednesday.

A EU contact in Washington said the Americans will have to rebuild the confidence lost as a result of the on-going NSA-led snooping allegations on EU citizens and their leadership.

“It [Safe Harbour] is wider than the immediate wire-tapping because that has consequences or that has implications on trust on how we work together,” noted the contact.