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New, safe 'Safe Harbour' agreement needed urgently

Posted by Nick Prag at 15 October 2015, 15:55 CET |

MEPs from the Civil Liberties Committee have called on the European Commission to come up with safe alternatives to the EU-US Safe Harbour agreement, in the wake of the European Court of Justice ruling that the arrangement - used by companies like Facebook to send citizens' personal data to the US - was invalid.

The ruling, that Safe Harbour does not properly protect European data, stemmed from the scandal involving Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency whistleblower who in 2013 revealed a worldwide US surveillance programme harvesting the data.

The 2000 US-EU Safe Harbor Framework was a streamlined process which allowed firms signed up to it to transfer the personal information of European citizens to the US, allowing US companies to comply with the EU's Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data.

Under Safe Harbour the companies promised to protect the data of EU citizens. The US did not have data protection rules, and the agreement gave US companies the possibility of exchanging commercial data.

Safe Harbour has been used by thousands of companies ranging from Google and Amazon to smaller businesses, allowing them to legally transfer to data storage servers elsewhere huge amounts of information collected from users: personal data, their searches, preferences and purchases.

Its scrapping, according to US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker "puts at risk the thriving transatlantic digital economy". The Safe Harbour agreement has been its cornerstone "since before global companies like Facebook were founded", she said.

Nevertheless, the ECJ ruling is a victory for European consumers. Many say it never did look very safe, which is the reason the Parliament has for several years wanted it scrapped.

The current legal vacuum means the Commission is under pressure to come up with some sort of alternative, urgently.

Any new deal will this time have to make sure that the privacy of European citizens' data really is protected in the European market.

Urgent negotiations are now under way with the US authorities to put in place as soon as possible a new, safe Safe Harbour agreement. The Commission is expected to make clear that companies are welcome to operate in the European market and make money here, but that they must also respect and follow European privacy rules.

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Nick Prag

Nick Prag

Nick Prag is founder and managing editor of Prior to EUbusiness, he was senior editor at Europe Online SA in Luxembourg, where he played a major part in the launch of Europe Online International.