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EU justice chief vows new data protection laws

PRISM has ‘woken Europe up’ to the need for strict rules.

European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding
European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding
Image: Yves Logghe/AP/Press Association Images

EU JUSTICE COMMISSIONER Viviane Reding has said she is determined to deliver new European data protection laws in the wake of revelations about covert US surveillance.

“PRISM has woken Europeans up to the need to have robust, strict rules,” Reding told AFP in an interview before informal talks with European Union justice ministers got underway in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Revelations about PRISM and other programmes by the US National Security Agency to capture and store personal information gleaned from emails, phone calls and web searches have sparked outrage, especially after tech giants such as Google, Skype or Facebook were implicated.

Reding said a joint declaration issued by France and Germany at the Lithuania talks marked a turning point in getting long-delayed legislative proposals moving again.

These proposals were on the verge of collapse but have been given a new lease of life after media reports about the US and also British role in gathering reams of data from commonly used social networks.

As a result, Reding said that British-led opposition within the EU, based on concerns over increased regulation and costs, was now irrelevant.

French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and her German counterpart Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger signed a pledge to deliver a “high level of data protection.”

This, they said in their statement, would leave overseas public access to personal information “very strictly framed and tightly controlled”.

“People must know which personal data are collected by the telecommunications companies, to what extent these data are transferred to foreign public authorities and for what purposes,” they said.

This common position between Berlin and Paris is an “extremely useful” development, according to Reding.

“We can allow ourselves to forget Great Britain’s opposition on condition that the German engine unites a large majority, which will be the case,” she added.

Reding said some ministers wanted quick implementation but that a flood of anticipated amendments would mean next year would be more realistic for adoption of the new measures.

The issue has become sensitive for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the run-up to September polls there.

Other governments too are under pressure from perceived or implicit collaboration with Washington.

Reding said she would be closely studying US provisions governing use of European data received from third-party sources.

“Is it really safe” to transfer EU citizens’ data to the United States without people’s knowledge?” she asked.

Reding wants penalties for breaches on data use to be high – up to two percent of global turnover, which would translate into massive fines for the biggest Internet companies.

US fines are currently in the low six-figures, a level Reding termed “pocket money.”

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