EU-US safe harbour talks are lingering just outside port, says US

EU: Look, look, there's a storm coming!

In a visit to Brussels this week, US Under Secretary Catherine Novelli told reporters that an agreement on a revised Safe Harbor framework was just weeks away. But the European Commissioner responsible for data protection, Vera Jourova, said there were still obstacles to be overcome.

The Safe Harbor agreement is a legally enforceable but voluntary code of conduct for US businesses that process European citizens’ data. The bilateral deal was reached in 2000 and is supposed to guarantee Europeans data privacy in line with the 1995 EU Data Protection Directive.

Following the Snowden revelations last year many don’t believe it is worth the paper it’s printed on and the European Parliament has called for it to be suspended.

Instead of suspension, however, the European Commission has sought to renegotiate certain aspects of it including getting judicial redress rights for European citizens equivalent to those enjoyed by Americans.

“We have achieved solid commitments on the commercial aspects,” said Jourova, “However, work still needs to continue as far as national security exemptions are concerned. Discussions will continue.”

Sources in Brussels told el Reg that the national security issue was much bigger than is being admitted by the public representatives with neither side giving much ground.

Novelli, however, was optimistic: “We will be able to get to an agreement on a revised Safe Harbour as it is very important that we find ways to preserve data flows. We don’t want to shoot each other in the foot.”

In fact it would be data-hungry companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter that would be hopping around should the Safe Harbour talks fail. Safe Harbour is also under threat from another quarter as the European Court of Justice considers the case of Max Schrems who complained that Facebook had passed personal data on to the NSA in breach of his data protection rights. A ruling in that case could scupper the deal altogether.

However Novelli was not prepared to discuss a Plan B: “It is awfully hard to speculate on this case,” she said.

The Safe Harbour agreement only pertains to data processed by companies, but the EU and US are also in talks on the so-called “Umbrella Agreement” designed to protect personal data for law enforcement purposes.

Jourova, who was meeting with the new US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that negotiators were making “solid progress” on the Umbrella Agreement. ®

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