Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Brussels on Friday to express anger about secret trade talks between the EU, US and others that they believe would damage the 28-member-state bloc's data protection rights.
More than 1,000 people marched in the centre of the EU quarter to protest about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). The latter has provoked outrage following a leak of the US position from April 2014 that was published on Wednesday by Netzpolitik.org and Associated Whistleblowing Press. It focuses on e-commerce, technology transfer, cross-border data flows and net neutrality.
The text included a clear attempt to exempt US companies from any requirement to store personal data on EU soil. Under the Stateside draft of the trade deal, no party may “impose or enforce any requirement” for computing facilities to be “located in its territory or computer processing or storage services supplied from within its territory”.
Viviane Reding, MEP and former EU Justice Commissioner, argued the leaked information showed that the US was using TiSA to undermine Europe's right to privacy.
The current EU Data Protection Directive requires the Union's 28 nations to prohibit the personal data transfers to any country that does not meet adequate levels of protection.
The US does not.
However, since no one in Brussels was willing to turn away US business, a deal was struck in 2000 allowing American firms to voluntarily sign up to the Safe Harbor principle and promise to protect EU citizens’ personal data, which – in effect – ensured business as usual.
But this scheme is now under threat. The European Parliament has called for Safe Harbor to be scrapped following the NSA spying scandal. And a David and Goliath legal case led by Austrian student Max Schrems against Facebook has now been referred to the European Court of Justice.
If Schrems wins this battle, EU countries will have a handy loophole to block data transfers under Safe Harbor.
TiSA talks began in March 2013 with the aim of extending the scope and rules of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). As well as the EU and the US, Australia, Canada, Chile, Hong Kong, Colombia, Korea, Costa Rica, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Norway, New Zealand, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Switzerland, Taipei and Turkey are all involved. China and Uruguay have also asked to take part in negotiations.
German MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who steered the proposed new data protection regulation through the Parliament, said:
TiSA is clearly a tool to undermine European data protection laws. The leaked text would allow any transfer of personal information to the rest of the world without safeguards.
The US wants corporate rights for unrestricted cross-border data flows at all costs. Removing governments’ ability to ensure that private and sensitive personal data is stored and processed only in jurisdictions that meet minimum requirements is the best way to achieve that.
Big American industry has long lobbied against what it describes as “forced localisation”. Ska Keller, deputy leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, said:
This leak shows TiSA is intended to enforce the interests of large corporations at the expense of consumer and data protection. Data protection standards should not be lowered through the back door of trade agreements. Companies that want to offer their services in Europe, also have to accept our standards.
While the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of the whole EU, said:
TiSA will contain the same safeguards for protecting privacy that currently exist in the GATS [the General Agreement on Trade in Services], an international agreement signed by all members of the World Trade Organisation.
That won't be true if the leaked US position prevails.
The draft agreement also includes a section on net neutrality. The public should be guaranteed access to services and applications online, but subject to “reasonable measures of traffic management”. However, no clarification was offered on what might or might not be deemed “reasonable”. ®