MEPs question EC plans to revise Safe Harbor Principles

Members of the European Parliament have questioned European Commission plans to improve Safe Harbor data protection standards

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have questioned European Commission (EC) plans to improve Safe Harbor data protection standards.

In November, the EC called on the US to provide guarantees to restore trust in the wake of revelations of mass internet surveillance by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Until now, trust has relied on the Safe Harbor Privacy Principles designed to ensure US companies respect the EU citizens’ right to protection of personal data.

But in the light of the Snowden revelations this year of spying on EU citizens, companies and leaders, the EC wants further guarantees and processes to rebuild trust.

But some MEPs have asked how changes proposed by EC vice-president Viviane Reding will work in practice, while others proposed that the EU withdraw from the scheme and certify US firms itself.

MEPs also criticised the EC for moving too slowly on data protection reforms for Europe.

"I can't see that we are doing much to regain the trust of our citizens," said Germany MEP Axel Voss at the 14th hearing of the Civil Liberties Committee inquiry on mass surveillance of EU citizens.

Reding defended her proposals by saying they are a “to-do list and not a basis for negotiation", adding that suppressing the Safe Harbor deal "would not be a good idea".

She also pointed out that 95% of European companies consider Safe Harbor standards are needed.

In the past 13 years, more than 3,200 companies have signed up to Safe Harbor, which limits what they can do with data transferred outside the EU, how long they can hold it, and to whom it can be transferred.

The principles also give individuals the right to access personal information about them and ask for it to be corrected or deleted if it is inaccurate.

Now the EC wants EU citizens to be given the right to judicial redress if a US company breaks the rules, and it wants to be able to fine companies up to 5% of their worldwide turnover.

"Members of [the US] Congress had never been asked to change the law [to include judicial redress provisions for non-US citizens]. It is really not a big thing to do," said Reding.

“Parliament and Commission need to continue to work on this," she said.

The next inquiry hearing is to take place on 18 December in Brussels, when rapporteur Claude Moraes is expected to present his draft report with initial conclusions on the inquiry.

The Civil Liberties Committee should vote on the text in January 2014 and the plenary vote should take place on 24-27 February in Strasbourg.

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