European Commission denies watering down data protection laws

The Commission did not cave in to US lobbying, a spokeswoman says

The European Commission on Thursday strenuously denied watering down its proposals for data protection laws as a result of United States lobbying.

The Commission's justice spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, called the allegations, which appeared in the Financial Times, "a strange story with strange timing."

"We are surprised by the very one-sided account of events that took place in the run up to the presentation of the Data Protection Regulation. While it is no secret that there was immense lobbying on this issue, including from the U.S. authorities, the Commission stood firm," she said.

The reaction from lobbyists since the presentation of the proposed law in January 2012 shows that they did not "get what they wanted," she added.

The FT article cites three "senior E.U. officials" saying that measures that would have limited U.S. intelligence agencies' ability to spy on European citizens were dropped by the Commission following a successful U.S. lobby campaign.

However, Andreeva pointed out that in the draft text, which is still being debated by the European Parliament, a section on geographical scope "makes it absolutely clear that U.S. companies would have to abide by European rules whenever they offer their goods and services to European citizens." The draft text also says that requests to access E.U. citizens' data from third country police authorities should go through existing legal frameworks.

The new Data Protection Regulation would revise the European Union's data protection rules, which date from 1995. But discussions in the Parliament have stalled. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who are directly elected by citizens in member states, have put forward more than 3,000 amendments to the text.

Civil liberties activists have accused MEPs of caving in to pressure from big business, particularly from the U.S. and simply "cutting and pasting" from lobbyists' documents.

Some MEPs themselves have expressed alarm at the level of lobbying. "I've never seen anything quite like it," said Pirate Party MEP Christian Engstrom.

Many parliamentarians were also angered by the United States weighing in with its opinion before a final vote had been taken.

A document published in February by the U.S. Mission to the E.U. claimed that the proposed new regulation could "stifle innovation and inhibit growth" and urged the E.U. "to look more towards outcomes that provide meaningful protection for privacy and focus less on formalistic requirements."

And although some MEPs do not wish to antagonize Europe's biggest ally, anger over the Prism data-gathering scandal could lead them to push for stricter data protection rules for E.U. citizens. "At least we can hope that some good will come out of this whole affair," said Engstrom.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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