MEPs want to scrap US data agreements

13.03.14 @ 08:58

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - MEPs want the EU to scrap data protection agreements with the US as they increase pressure on member states to start negotiations on reforming data protection rules in the EU.

  • MEPs want to enter negotiations on data protection reform with member states as soon as possible (Photo: Jan Albrecht)

German Green Jan Philipp Albrecht on Wednesday (12 March) told reporters in Strasbourg that it would be irresponsible of member states to keep postponing negotiations on the reforms after over two years of discussions.

"We need reform and the regulation as soon as possible so that we can start negotiations directly after the [May] elections," he said.

Deputies at Tuesday’s debate in the assembly vented their frustration at the delay.

The Greek EU presidency, for its part, is set to start talks among member states around June.

Albrecht, who steered the regulation through the parliament, said giant US tech and Internet companies are exploiting loopholes to work around Europe’s outdated data protection rules.

Ireland’s low data protection standards, he pointed out, has attracted major firms like Facebook to set up headquarters in Dublin.

“The same for Google so they know they will have softer or lighter treatment when it comes to data protection and they know for example they will get that in Ireland and not in other countries like Austria, France or Spain so we want to end that situation,” said Albrecht.

But Ireland’s data protection commissioner Billy Hawkes rejects the label that he is a light touch regulator.

He told this website in January that there is a misunderstanding about the Irish approach.

“The effective enforcement action takes place behind closed doors. Our objective cannot be primarily to punish, the objective has to be that people’s rights are being respected,” he said.

Hawkes, for his part, dropped an investigation into Facebook Ireland Ltd’s alleged involvement in the so-called Prism scandal, which is said to give the National Security Agency (NSA) back-door entry into major American tech and Internet firms.

Austria-based pro-transparency group Europe vs. Facebook issued the complaint late last year following the NSA revelations made by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Hawkes noted that the so-called Safe Harbour agreement, which is designed to ensure that firms follow EU data protection laws when processing the personal data of EU citizens, is being respected.

“We concluded that there was nothing to investigate. Personal data had been legitimately transferred to the US under the [European] Commission's Safe Harbour ‘adequacy’ decision which provides for access to such data for law enforcement purposes,” said Hawkes.

Hawkes pointed out that he is bound, under Irish law, by the commission’s adequacy decisions.

MEPs vote to scrap data agreement

But MEPs on Wednesday voted en masse to have the Safe Harbour agreement replaced. The resolution also condemns the bulk collection of personal data by American and some European intelligence agencies.

Austrian law student Max Schrems, who is behind Europe vs. Facebook, said Ireland’s high court would hear his Prism case at the end of April.

The judge is set to decide whether Hawkes will need to investigate the complaint.

Schrems is confident the court will decide in his favour. But still he thinks little will change in the long run.

“The problem that data protection commissioners (DPC) have is that they would have to tell Facebook to turn off their servers tomorrow. And no DPC in the world would have the balls to do that,” he told this website.

Meanwhile, the assembly on Wednesday also endorsed a regulation on how to handle data between people and business, as well as a separate directive on data protection in law enforcement. Over 620 MEPs voted in favour of the regulation, while just over 370 voted in favour of the directive.