EU and US close to an agreement on data sharing amid European citizens’ concerns

Daniel Rosario, EC's Spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Development; and Trade, Ignacio Garcia Bercero and Dan Mullaney (from left to right) at Tenth round of EU/United States negotiations on Trade and Investment, Brussels, 13-17/07/2015 (EC Audiovisual Services, 13/07/2015).

Daniel Rosario, EC’s Spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Development; and Trade, Ignacio Garcia Bercero and Dan Mullaney (from left to right) at Tenth round of EU/United States negotiations on Trade and Investment, Brussels, 13-17/07/2015 (EC Audiovisual Services, 13/07/2015).

The European Union and the United States are close to sealing a deal on data sharing, which will affect the way banks and other businesses store data. As reported by Reuters last week, the European Commission is working with US authorities on the final details of the same commercial data-sharing deal that was frozen two years ago and then put up for renegotiation following leaks that unveiled mass surveillance practices by the USA.

15 years old story

Intended as an update of the original ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement between the two parties, which originally dates back to 2000, the proposed changes “include tougher conditions for US companies” – a document seen by Reuters shows – when sharing data with third parties. The European Commission then has been negotiating with the US since January 2014 to reform the existing agreement allowing companies to transfer data easily between the two blocks.

As Reuters reports, now the European Commission has officially demanded guarantees from the US that collection of EU citizens’ data for national security purposes would be “limited and proportionate”, as the main condition for not scrapping Safe Harbour.

Brussels concerns

This happens for a specific reason, after Brussels’ concerns were brought to light that companies could dodge the EU’s tougher data protection regime – compared to US’ one – by passing data on to another company not certified under the data-sharing deal and therefore not adhering to the same privacy standards. Under the new deal, U.S. registered companies will face stricter rules when transferring data to third parties.

Data protection and privacy have recently become important knots at the table of any EU-US negotiation. Data protection became a contentious issue in the discussions about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) above all. Especially after the LIBE (the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) adopted a strong Opinion on 31 March 2015 for the European Commission to respect EU fundamental rights such as data protection and privacy, the question is more than open now in the Old Continent.

Safe Harbour, which facilitates the everyday business activities of 3,000+ European and American companies, may face some opposition though, mainly at the European Parliament. The initial aim of completing a revised deal by the end of last summer encountered difficulties and deadlines shifted, as the European Commission basically did not feel that the United States gave enough guarantees to appease the privacy concerns at this side of the Atlantic.

Difficult EU-US negotiations

Another time, negotiations between the EU and the US result to be difficult on all accounts, and not so predictable. Indeed just a few days ago, Georg Mayer, member of the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in the European Parliament from Austria, reportedly declared that his group may vote against the EU-US deal in the final stage of negotiations.

But at the other side of the Atlantic the feelings are different. Reuters reported that Catherine Novelli, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic growth, Energy and the Environment, said that an agreement on Safe Harbour would come “very, very soon.” “We are very optimistic that we are going to be able to come to an agreement soon on Safe Harbour,” she said at a press event in Brussels last week.

Data protection laws reform

Discussions around Safe Harbour should be seen as part of a big upcoming reform of the EU data protection laws. For sure, differences between the way European and the American citizens perceive the matter are huge. Statistics released by the European Commission in 2012 revealed how Europeans are concerned about privacy and data protection, and how European trust regarding private companies that store data is low.

Low trust and high business

The 92 percent of Europeans are concerned about mobile apps collecting their data without their consent, the study revealed, while 89 percent of people say they want to know when the data on their smartphone is being shared with a third party. Also, according to the same study, 70 percent of Europeans fear that their personal data is being held by companies for other uses than the ones advertised.

What is a big concern though for citizens, sometimes may be also a big business. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the value of EU citizens’ data was €315 billion in 2011, and it could potentially grow up to nearly €1 trillion annually by 2020.

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