US envoy talks down fears on internet snooping
A senior US official has tried to dispel the notion that post-9/11 America abuses internet privacy, as EU lawmakers and civil liberties activists look to the future of web policing.
The state department's top official on international communications, Philip Verveer, who in his past work as a lawyer in the private sector also helped put together some of the US' biggest pieces of media legislation, led the mission to the EU capital on Thursday (26 January).
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He told press that US authorities adhere to stricter rules than some EU member states when attempting to access information stored on the 'cloud' - the emerging market of online data storage and services provided by companies.
Cloud data can belong to an individual from one country, be stored on a server in another country, which belongs to a company located in a third country and is managed by a sub-contractor from a fourth place. People who use Google Docs, for instance, typically do not know where their files are actually stored or who manages them.
Despite the complexities of cloud computing, the US officials said it is already covered by EU and US bilateral frameworks on data protection dating back to 2001.
"We think there are serious misunderstandings about the availability to data by US law enforcement on the cloud," Verveer noted.
Verveer and a fellow official from the US mission to the EU, Stewart Robinson, said the so-called Patriot Act comes in for undue criticism.
Passed less than two months after 9/11, NGOs such as the American Civil Liberties Union have said it gives authorities too much leeway on monitoring internet traffic and private emails in the name of national security.
The US officials on Thursday said independent judges have to give law enforcement agents special permission to access anybody's email or private records in safeguards equivalent to those in EU countries.
"The Patriot Act is really not an issue at all and yet it surfaces a lot ... Claims that the Patriot Act give the US government carte blanche access to data from US providers are simply wrong," Robinson said.
For its part, the European Commission on Wednesday published new legal proposals on how to protect people's online privacy.
EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding told press that EU companies will in future face liabilities from both sides if they hand over data to US law enforcement agencies - from the US if they do not comply and from the EU if they give too much.
"This is a complicated question. We have put a solution into our regulation and the future will show if this will be operable or not," she said.
For her part, Liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld told EUobserver that EU companies tend to give the US whatever it wants on the quiet.
Reding had said that the Patriot Act does not apply in the EU. But In't Veld said that if a company has any kind of US presence, then the US can subpoeana data from its servers in Europe.
Online privacy and free speech is gathering momentum as a popular cause around the world.
The EU and 22 member states on Thursday in Tokyo signed a controversial treaty designed to combat intellectual property theft - Acta - which its critics say will curb internet freedom.
With MEPs still due to ratify the text, hackers the same day fired a warning shot by launching a 300,000-hit-a-second denial of service attack on the EU parliament's website.
An internal parliament email attributed the problem to the so-called Anonymous group.