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17th Sep 2021

EU data bill exposes political rifts

  • 70 percent of Europeans worry that companies use their data for purposes different to the one it was intended for, an EU survey says (Photo: SWIFT)

Ideological and political divisions emerge among European Parliament political groups as they debate amendments on the draft EU data protection bill.

“I can see a shift towards more of the protection, under quotation marks, of business interests and not the protection of citizen’s fundamental rights,” Greek socialist MEP Dimitrios Droutsas told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday (15 May).

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Droutsas is the parliament’s lead negotiator on the data protection bill.

The draft law is composed of a regulation and a directive.

The regulation aims to balance privacy rights and business interest. The directive deals with the same issue of citizen’s rights but with public authorities like the police.

The combined two rank among the parliament’s most lobbied draft bills ever. Well over 4,000 amendments have now been tabled.

The US government and industry giants helped put forward many of the amendments via the parliament’s two largest groups, the liberals and the centre-right.

The groups are now in the laborious process of reaching a compromise text before it goes to plenary for a vote.

“You can very slowly see red lines, very distinctive lines in the approach by the different political groups,” said Droutsas.

The bill updates the 1995 data protection directive and aims to harmonise data protection rules across all 27-member states.

Deputies in 2011 agreed on a resolution to ensure that the draft bill would be at least as strong if not stronger than the 18-year old directive.

At the time, around 1 percent of the world's communication passed through the Internet. Today, it is around 97 percent.

“It [1995 directive] is the standard that we are using to move ahead,” said German Green MEP Jan Phillip Albrecht who heads the draft version of the regulation.

“If companies outside of Europe are acting on the European market and do not respect our existing law then we are not adjusting our behaviour…they need to adjust their behaviour to our existing law. That is what we are doing with our regulation. We are enforcing the law we have today,” he said.

Albrecht noted that discussions about bureaucratic burdens and additional costs are a diversion.

“What I am doing is harmonising existing law on one level and have it better enforced. That’s what I’m doing, not more, not less,” he said.

But some insiders are now concerned that the two largest groups, with their combined efforts, will force through the lobbied amendments that pro-data advocates say could undermine the bill.

The amendments driving the rift among the parties include those that weaken the definition of consent, allow profiling, remove a person’s control of his personal data, entitle businesses to use data if they believe it is in their ‘best interest’ to do so, and exclude pseudonymous data from protection.

Centre-right Irish MEP Sean Kelly, who drafted the industry committee's opinion on the bill, says the group differences are found in the detail.

“There are obviously philosophical differences because there are different political groups,” he noted.

Kelly introduced a number of diverging details into the draft that largely reflect proposals put forward by online retail giant Amazon.

Companies are entitled to use data without consent if they think that their “legitimate interests” outweigh the privacy rights of the citizen.

Kelly proposed extending this to third parties. He then proposed extending it to third parties for processing the data for reasons that are incompatible with the original data collection, says Joe McNamee, the executive director of the Brussels-based European Digital Rights.

“This completely severs the link between the citizen and their data and undermines the whole purpose of the regulation,” says McNamee.

For her part, UK liberal MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford, proposed deleting a requirement for companies to tell consumers where they obtained their personal data, in cases where this information was received from other sources.

“Indeed I strongly support that companies must give clear information to users but I felt some of the commission text was too prescriptive and detailed,” she told this website by email.

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