US President Barack Obama is in Europe this week, presenting European leaders with numerous opportunities for a quick “selfie” with the Leader of the Free World. Officially, Mr Obama will be taking part in talks for the third Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, as well as meetings with G7, NATO and EU leaders to discuss US-EU trade talks and the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Unofficially, the whirlwind tour of Europe by Mr Obama is widely seen as an attempt to woo back European leaders, who felt ignored and taken for granted during Obama’s first term and have been upset by the recent NSA spying scandal.
US-EU relations have certainly been bruised by allegations of systematic digital espionage. In an effort to reassure voters, the main parties in the European Parliament will all be campaigning on strengthening EU data protection rules, and each of them has made sure to mention online privacy in their election manifestos. The Centre-Right say they want to “ensure data protection as a human right” whereas the Social Democrats hope to promote “solid EU legislation on the protection of citizens’ personal data and access to information”.
Traditionally, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have both been strong on the issue of digital privacy, and both parties have put forward policies in their manifestos that they believe would improve security for EU citizens online. The Greens would like to “guarantee online liberties through a digital Bill of Rights to protect privacy, personal data and net neutrality”, whilst the Liberal Democrats say they will “strive for a common cybersecurity policy, which will improve the ability of our member states to protect our privacy and economy”. Are you convinced? Don’t forget to vote for the party whose views on digital privacy you support in our Debating Europe Vote 2014!
We had a comment sent in by Lillie on American and European attitudes to privacy. She argued that privacy is considered a human right in Europe but a consumer right in the US. When we put this comment to Indrek Tarand, an Estonian MEP who sits with the Greens in the European Parliament, he argued that Europeans should be more concerned by Russian and Chinese spying:
You have to consider that I’m a veteran of a Cold War, so for me US spying cannot be a bigger problem than Chinese or Russian spying. And, here in the Parliament, unfortunately, we always speak about the US but tend to forget that other big powers are doing the same.
We also took Lillie’s comment to Paul Nemitz, the Director for Fundamental Rights and Citizenship at DG Justice at the European Commission, who we interviewed during the CPDP conference in January. He thinks that US and European attitudes towards privacy are different, but that they can be reconciled as long as the US is willing to accept tougher rules.
There are some (including among our commenters) who argue that it is naive for Europeans to think that the US is the only power spying on citizens, while others (particularly in Britain) believe it was irresponsible for journalists to publish details that might put national security at risk. When we spoke to Marjetje Schaake, a Dutch MEP who sits with the Liberal Democrats and has worked extensively on issues of data protection and privacy, we asked her about intelligence leaks and the role of journalists.
Finally, we had a comment sent in by Joe arguing that it was time for the EU to immediately revoke the current “Safe Harbour” agreement with the US, which allows companies to export data from Europe to servers in the US as long as they have been certified as providing adequate levels of protection. We spoke to Birgit Sippel, a German MEP with the Social Democrats, and asked her how she would respond:
Yes, the EU should immediately revoke the current “Safe Harbour” mechanism, because it cannot be considered as “safe” any longer. Since its entry into force in the year 2000, the “Safe Harbour” regime has been the object of constant criticism, for example as regards the rights of EU data subjects under US law. In addition, in the context of the NSA affair, it was revealed that US intelligence services have direct access to data stored with companies that are supposed to be “safe” since they are certified under the “Safe Harbour” mechanism. The Commission itself has acknowledged the urgent need for reform. I am therefore pleased that the request for suspension of the “Safe Harbour” rules is also mentioned in the NSA report that was voted in the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee on 12 February and shall be endorsed by the plenary in March 2014.
Would the European Commission be receptive to the idea of suspending the “Safe Harbour” mechanism with the US? We asked Paul Nemitz from the Commission to respond:
Are Europeans so focused on US spying that they forget other powers are doing the same? Should we be more worried about Chinese and Russian spying than the NSA scandal? And can European and American attitudes to privacy be reconciled? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.