Privacy groups call on US government to stop lobbying against EU data law changes

The EFF, ACLU, EPIC, and more than a dozen other privacy and rights groups are calling on the US government to stop the 'unprecedented lobbying campaign' over the proposed changes to EU data protection and privacy laws.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

A coalition of privacy groups has written to leading US politicians [PDF] to seek assurances that US policymakers in Europe "advance the aim of privacy", rather than hindering the process of the development of new European data protection and privacy laws.

European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Image: European Parliament/Flickr

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) — including more than a dozen others — are seeking a meeting with US Attorney General Eric Holder, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank to ensure that new European data law proposals are bolstered and not weakened.

In the letter, the 18 privacy groups claim that US and EU citizens' privacy and personal data are "being abused by both the commercial sector and governments".

"In fact, the line is increasingly blurred as personal data passes between both with few restrictions," they wrote.

While European politicians continue to debate and scrutinize ever-amending drafts of the new EU Data Protection Regulation — which seeks to replace an outdated and flaw-ridden 1995 directive — they noted that Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) reported that US policymakers are "mounting an unprecedented lobbying campaign to limit the protections that European law would provide".

The privacy group collective highlighted comments made by President Obama a year ago this month, which set out a comprehensive privacy framework "with principles designed to establish new safeguards for consumers, and new responsibilities for companies that collect and use personal information".

The coalition claims, however, that US policymakers, politicians, and bureaucrats are undermining the work of the European Parliament, which continues to scrutinize the European Commission's proposals for new data protection and privacy laws.

"The US should not stand in the way of Europe's efforts to strengthen and modernize its legal framework," the letter states.

Obama Administration "working to protect" the lobby

The new EU data protection and privacy law will help further protect the 500 million-plus European citizens' rights in an ever-globalizing world and borderless cloud.

One of the major concerns is the extra-territorial effect of US law on European citizens, notably with the FISA Amendments Act 2008 and sections of the Patriot Act that could be used by authorities [PDF] to "engage in dragnet and suspicionless monitoring of communications between an individual in the United States and foreigners abroad".

One leading US consumer protection and privacy organization warned that EU officials are being pressured by the US to weaken the proposed privacy protections in the Commission's draft data protection laws.

"One of the US' few growth areas is stealing other people's data." — Center for Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester.

The Center for Digital Democracy's executive director Jeff Chester told ZDNet that despite the pro-privacy rhetoric from President Obama, his administration is "working to protect the US data lobby".

"One of the US' few growth areas is stealing other people's data. So, the US is arguing that the EU should not enact strong baseline rules requiring citizens to provide affirmative consent for such critical uses as profiling, and adopt its weak industry friendly approach based primarily on industry self-regulation," he said.

The privacy groups also noted that government access to communications data under the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) "must be pursuant to a rigorous legal process".

The letter notes that updating ECPA — in which authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor, rather than a judge, to obtain electronically stored messages aged six months or older — "would be a good start for the strengthening of US law and policy" to bring the country in compliance with international human rights norms.

EU "fed up" with US lobbying

A year ago, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the lobbying effort had been "absolutely fierce" and unprecedented in scale, as reported by The Telegraph.

On Sunday, the head of an influential pan-European industry group criticized "intensifying pressure from US lobbyists on behalf of Google and Facebook" in order to suit the needs of Silicon Valley technology companies, reported the Financial Times of London [paywall].

Jacob Kohnstamm, the chairman of the EU's Article 29 Working Party — a group of data protection officials from each of the EU's member states — said European lawmakers are "fed up" with US lobbying.

In sharp words aimed at the Americans, he said: "You're not going to change your Fourth Amendment because of a business model in Europe, are you?"

Just a couple of months before Reding unveiled the final proposed draft of the EU Data Protection Regulation in January 2012, the European Digital Rights privacy group released a leaked US "informal note" document that attacked one particular proposed "article" within the draft law, which would have closed a loophole allowing US authorities access to EU data without going through the international legal channels.

"Article 42" was ultimately removed from the final proposed draft, following suspected lobbying by US authorities to have it removed.

However, Jan Philipp Albrecht MEP, the draft law's rapporteur — the politician in charge of scrutinizing the law — presented his draft report recommending amendments to the proposed regulation, in which much of the original wording was reintroduced [PDF].

Members of the European Parliament are expected to vote on the draft regulation around the end of April, according to a European Commission spokesperson.

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