Kevin J O'Brien
Silicon Valley technology companies and the United States government are pushing hard against Europe's effort to enact sweeping privacy protection for digital data. Several proposed laws working their way through the European Parliament could give 500 million consumers the ability to block or limit many forms of online Web tracking and targeted advertising. All the major American tech companies have directed their lobbyists in Brussels, where the Parliament is based, to press to weaken or remove these proposals from the European provisions.
And the United States Commerce Department is lobbying on behalf of the Obama administration, which is concerned that sweeping new privacy controls could hurt the United States tech industry in Europe. This week, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the Friends of Privacy USA, an offshoot of the London-based Privacy International, weighed in with a different message: Europe needs to pass tough restrictions to save the digital economy, not destroy it. The dispute has brought into the open how much Europe and the United States differ on privacy rights and their role in the digital economy. Barry Steinhardt, the chairman of Friends of Privacy, founded last year, called it a titanic clash.
The rest of the world is looking to see who will prevail because the Asians, Latin Americans and Africans all need to do business with the US and Europe, Steinhardt said. So this is extraordinarily important for Americans. Steinhardt and his allies in the battle - Susan Grant, the director of protection for the consumer federation, and Ben Wizner, a lawyer who focuses on speech, privacy and technology at the ACLU argued their case at a meeting this week with European members of Parliament.
We are here to correct the record, Wizner said. Certainly the US government has been making misleading statements about the state of electronic privacy law in the US, how consumer protections are as strong in the U.S. as in Europe. But that is simply not the case. Wizner said the United States had no equivalent to Europes general data protection law. American law, he said, guarantees consumer privacy only in specific cases, like medical and financial records, but permits online companies to conduct unfettered data mining with only take-it-or-leave-it privacy controls.
Under the European proposals, Web businesses would be unable to perform basic collecting and profiling of individual computer users unless they gave their explicit consent as part of policies that allow them to specify what kinds of information could be collected and for what purpose. Businesses would also have to permanently remove and delete personal information upon request, and national regulators would gain the ability to fine companies up to 2% of their annual sales for not complying.
The proposals are before the European Parliament and a council of 27 European Union justice ministers, who are trying to put together consensus positions. Parliament is expected to complete its draft by late April and would then enter negotiations with the justice ministers over the remainder of the year, with adoption expected in early 2014. The outcome of the debate is critical to United States technology companies, which typically generate a third or more of their sales in the European Union.
During a speech in Brussels on December 4, the United States ambassador to the union, William E Kennard, urged lawmakers to amend parts of the legislation that would require businesses to obtain explicit consent from consumers before collecting and mining data and to remove all traces of personal data from the Internet upon request. Proposals to weaken the restrictions on collecting data have been submitted by eBay and Amazon, as well as by industry groups like Digital Europe, a Brussels association whose members include Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, IBM, Oracle, the Google subsidiary Motorola Mobility, Texas Instruments and Dell, along with European and global tech companies. Some of the lobbying efforts have already borne fruit.
Faced with the United States industry opposition, some supporters of the proposals are worried about the prospects of producing meaningful changes. The outcome is very unclear at this point, said Jrmie Zimmermann, a spokesman for a French digital rights group, La Quadrature du Net. The US lobbying on this has been very effective so far. It is impossible to tell what will happen.