19th May 2022

EU urges privacy protection in US data-pact talks

  • The EU and US are in talks to finalise a new Safe Harbour agreement (Photo: Alessio Milan)

The European Commission wants Washington to agree on rules safeguarding the privacy of EU nationals whose data is transferred to firms within the US.

The rules are part of broader negotiations aimed at finalising a data-transfer pact by the end of January.

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EU commissioner for justice Vera Jourova said on Monday (18 January) that US authorities must make guarantees on privacy in a new so-called Safe Harbour agreement.

"We need guarantees that there is effective judicial control of public authorities' access to data for national security, law enforcement and public interest purposes," she said at a conference in Brussels.

Jourova said talks would continue this week in the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Longstanding issues over US government access for national security and intelligence purposes has drawn out talks on Safe Harbour.

Respect for private life

The talks, and an approaching 31 January deadline, are generating unease among data-driven businesses, which had used a previous agreement as a basis to transfer data of EU nationals across the Atlantic with relative ease.

But last October, Europe's top court in Luxembourg scrapped the 15-year old agreement, due in part to broader issues on mass surveillance and fundamental rights in a case initially brought against Facebook by an Austrian student.

The Court found, among other things, that generalised access to the content of electronic communications violated "the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life".

The judgment increased the pressure on negotiators to finalise the new agreement, with EU national privacy authorities threatening “coordinated enforcement actions” should the January deadline be missed.

Meanwhile, four big US and European trade groups recently signed a joint letter urging negotiators to meet the 31 January deadline.

'Too big to fail'

"This issue must be resolved immediately or the consequences could be enormous for the thousands of businesses and millions of users impacted," it said, according to a copy obtained by the AFP.

Signed by the heads of Business Europe, Digital Europe, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Information Technology Industry Council, the letter dated 15 January was addressed to both European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and US president Barack Obama.

Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, also at Monday's conference in Brussels, said the talks were "too big to fail".

“We need a world in which people know that their rights will be protected by both their domestic and international law," he said.

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