EU Parliamentarians visit U.S. to talk data protection, mass surveillance

Discussions will cover major privacy and data protection issues

Data protection and mass surveillance are high on the agenda for talks between members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and their U.S. counterparts in Washington, D.C., this week.

A delegation of 11 MEPs, all members of the Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE), are in Washington to discuss major issues. One of them is the renewal of the so-called Safe Harbor deal that regulates the transfer of personal data of EU citizens to the U.S.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations about U.S. government spying, the European Commission -- the E.U.'s executive branch -- gave the U.S. 13 demands that it wanted met in order for the Safe Harbor deal to continue. So far, however, no agreement has been reached. A summer 2014 deadline was postponed and the Commission now hopes to conclude talks on the deal by the end of May.

If that does not happen though, the deal could be suspended, which would have huge implications for U.S. tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, who use the agreement to process EU citizen data in the U.S.

Twitter, for instance, said in its latest annual SEC filing that cancelling Safe Harbor would hurt its business. "Revocation of the Safe Harbor Framework could require us to create duplicative, and potentially expensive, information technology infrastructure and business operations in Europe or limit our ability to collect and use personal information collected in Europe. Any of these could disrupt our business," Twitter said.

After a six-month inquiry into U.S. mass surveillance schemes, the EU Parliament last year called on the European Commission to suspend Safe Harbor. Meanwhile, the Parliament has begun the second phase of its inquiry into the Snowden revelations, and the MEPs are looking to talk with U.S. officials about the implications of mass surveillance on Safe Harbor, they said in a news release.

While there are serious differences involving Safe Harbor that still need to be resolved, there also have been some positive developments in the EU-U.S. relationship, they said.

They commended the commitments made by the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who in June last year announced that the Obama administration is seeking to extend to EU citizens guarantees of the U.S. Privacy Act, which today are only available to U.S. citizens. The guarantees would allow EU citizens to take U.S. authorities to court if they find their personal data is misused. Currently, U.S. citizens are allowed to sue EU authorities.

In addition to key issues as Safe Harbor and judicial redress, the MEPs are also looking to give the U.S. an update on data protection reform in the EU, detailing how it how it might affect trans-Atlantic relations. In return, the MEPs hope to get an insight into recent U.S. initiatives on data protection, they said.

The MEPs will also give a progress report on counter-terrorism and law enforcement proposals, including a plan for the exchange of Passenger Name Records (PNR), put together in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, they said.

The MEPs will talk with various representatives of Congress, government departments and agencies including the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, as well as various academics.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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