EU's likely next digital chief takes a swipe at US over data protection

It is time for the US to show it can be trusted, Andrus Ansip said

Andrus Ansip, designate Commissioner for digital single market, interviewed by the European Parliament

Andrus Ansip, designate Commissioner for digital single market, interviewed by the European Parliament

Wasting no time, the European commissioner who could soon be co-leading the EU's digital agenda is already firing warning shots at the U.S. over data protection.

Andrus Ansip used his confirmation hearing before the European Parliament Monday to warn that the EU might suspend the Safe Harbor data-sharing agreement if U.S. lawmakers don't get their act together when it comes to protecting European citizen's data. Ansip is the nominee expected to take over the digital agenda along with Günther Oettinger in a realignment of the Commission's oversight of that area when Neelie Kroes steps down Nov. 1.

"Safe Harbor is not safe to today," the 58-year-old former Estonian prime minister said. "Americans have to provide real trust to European citizens. When it comes to protecting data, similar rules and safeguards should apply to all companies wherever they are based. To be worthy of their name, Safe Harbors do need to be safe.

Suspending the data agreement would have major implications for companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, among others, that process data in the U.S. from European citizens. EU laws prohibit the transfer of personal data to non-EU countries that do not meet the EU's data-protection standards. As part of Safe Harbor, U.S. companies are supposed to meet EU standards in providing data protections for Europeans.

But European citizens are really worried about how the U.S. uses its national security exception, Ansip said. "If we will not get clear answers on how this exception will be used, then of course suspension as an option will stay on the table," he said.

The Commission has been reviewing the Safe Harbor agreement since last November, following ongoing revelations of large-scale U.S. intelligence collection programs, and has put forward 13 proposals to strengthen the agreement. The national security exception is one of the last issues at stake.

Ansip also took a swipe a Google and ventured into the topic of search neutrality.

"In some cases it is absolutely impossible to gain visibility in search engines," he said in answering a question, apparently referring to an ongoing antitrust case against Google in the EU that started after competitors complained that the company favors its services in search results, reducing the visibility of results from competitors.

Nobody has the right to abuse a dominant position in the market, including search engines, he said, which could be bad news for Google's chances to settle the case quickly.

The Commission started looking for more concessions from Google in that case last month and postponed a decision to the next Commission's term.

Ansip also said that he wants to use the first six months of the new Commission's term to finalize negotiation's on the EU's new data-protection package. He further vowed to increase cybersecurity, enable easier cross-border online purchases and work to abolish roaming costs. And he wants the new Commission to support open-source software.

Ansip will only get to work on these issue if he wins the confidence of the members of parliament, although the vote seems to be a formality.

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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