Monday

20th Nov 2017

EU trade secrets bill prompts concern

  • The directive aims to protect European companies' new patents and technologies (Photo: Argonne National Laboratory)

MEPs are trying to walk a fine line between business interests and civil liberties in a new bill on trade secrets.

The directive is to unify member states’ legislation on how to protect business from illegal access and disclosure of secret information, for instance, on upcoming patents or innovative technologies.

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The French centre-right MEP steering the law through the European Parliament, Constance Le Grip, said in a debate on Monday (23 March) it’ll have to strike “a balance between the need to protect secrets and the need for knowledge and information to circulate".

She noted that the directive "doesn’t go against civil liberties”.

But Green MEP Julia Reda said the European Commission’s original draft "is missing a clear definition of public interest".

She cited issues such as the health and environmental implications of novel products which could be considered as trade secrets under the proposed legislation, preventing whistleblowers, NGOs, and media from publishing information of public interest.

She was joined by Portuguese liberal MEP Antonio Marinho e Pinto who called for the bill to "safeguard the importance of journalism".

A parliament official noted that “the business lobby is very active and some MEPs are very open to their arguments”.

The debate echoes events in France last January, when the economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, had to withdraw an amendment on trade secrets from a bill on liberalising the economy after protests by civil liberties groups and journalists’ unions.

MEPs in the legal affairs committee also expressed concerns the EU law would prevent highly qualified workers going from one company to another when they have knowledge or experience that could be defined as a trade secret.

Le Grip has proposed extending the time during which a company can sue a person if they are considered to have disclosed secrets to up to three years.

But Germany’s Reda and Italian centre-left MEP Sergio Cofferati said that a three-year period would hinder workers’ mobility.

"If we don't protect these kinds of professionals, we will be preventing them from using their ability to increase the competitiveness of the labour market," Cofferati said.

The legal affairs committee is to adopt its final amendments in May.

But whatever compromise text is finally adopted, there will be wiggle room for member states on details of implementation.

Amid the risk that some capitals could use the bill to justify more restrictive legislation at home, Le Grip said: "We have to safeguard the safeguards”.

For her part, Reda added that the EU-US free trade treaty, also known as TTIP, could end up having a retroactive impact on the secrets bill.

Trade secrets are part of the intellectual property chapter of TTIP. But the EU law will be the first of its kind in Europe, so TTIP negotiators won’t be able to tackle the issues until the directive is in place.

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