U.S. firms, officials resisting Europe’s push for stronger digital privacy rules

The push for strict new limits on how Internet companies collect and use consumer data in Europe has hit stiff resistance from U.S. industry groups and the Obama administration, dimming hopes that the effort could lead to expanded privacy safeguards for users worldwide.

Privacy advocates have embraced a bill before the European Parliament as their best chance to win a range of protections that have failed to gain political traction in Washington. The sprawling nature of the information economy means that standards imposed in Europe likely would affect consumers everywhere, possibly giving them new power to block collection of their personal information and demand that it be deleted from existing files.

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But officials from the Commerce Department and the U.S. Mission to the European Union have largely echoed industry concerns that the bill could hinder innovation and economic growth worldwide while also hurting the ability of multinational corporations and governments to work across borders.

“We need to have a global conversation. This is too important. We can’t afford to have a Great Fire Wall of Europe. Europeans can’t afford to wall themselves off from the rest of the world,” said Cameron Kerry, general counsel to the Commerce Department, who has made several visits to Europe to discuss the data bill with officials there. “We have to maintain the free flows of information.”

The unusually intense lobbying campaign has caused irritation among some European officials who have been caught up in what amounts to a proxy struggle among American interests, with privacy advocates fighting industry groups as various U.S. government entities weigh in.

“This lobbying is somehow very one-sided to only protect Silicon Valley,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German lawmaker from the Green Party who is a member of the committee reviewing the bill.

U.S.-based privacy advocates have long favored an approach like the one in Europe, where privacy is regarded as a fundamental right and individual nations have data protection commissions to police how companies collect and use the personal information of their citizens. The United States, by contrast, has no overarching privacy law.

A delegation of American privacy advocates including the ACLU, the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy met this week with lawmakers in Brussels. There already are signs, however, that they are being outgunned by industry groups that have successfully lobbied for some proposed elements of the bill to be removed.

“Europe is really the last best hope for privacy in the world,” said Barry Steinhardt of Friends of Privacy USA, who was part of the delegation to Brussels this week. “The U.S. is the Wild West when it comes to privacy. There really is no law. The sheriffs only act when the bad guys come to town and do something terrible. The problem is there aren’t many sheriffs.”

In taking the fight to Europe, the consumer groups are drawing inspiration from an earlier generation of political fights in which activists sought out favorable battlegrounds — California, for example, for tougher auto emissions standards — to push causes moving slowly or not at all in Washington.

Obama administration officials say they are seeking to enhance consumer protections without stifling one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Here and in Europe, they have advocated what they call a “multi-stakeholder process” for resolving thorny privacy issues. That approach involves negotiations among industry groups, consumer advocates and other interested parties rather than top-down directives from government.

This tracks closely with the strategy favored by leaders of an increasingly wealthy and politically connected high-tech industry. Google, Facebook and Yahoo! have dramatically expanded their lobbying efforts and political giving in recent years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It said that Google’s lobbying totals in Washington alone were $18.2 million in 2012, nearly double the year before and more than triple the amount in 2010.

U.S. officials and industry groups lobbying the European Union say their primary concern has been to protect a digital economy that delivers appealing new products for consumers — often for free — while generating jobs across the world.

They say that depends on negotiating common standards that allow high-tech companies to operate in many countries without having to tailor offerings to fit the laws in each one. Strict new European standards, for example, could require that cloud computing services keep data on Europeans separate from data on citizens elsewhere.

“We have to be careful of one-size-fits-all policies here, given the complexity of the world,” said Sean Heather, an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key group in the industry lobbying effort.

The bill, regarded as one of the most complex ever considered by the European Union, seeks to update digital privacy laws passed in the mid-1990s while harmonizing policy and practices across a sprawling, diverse region.

The legislative process also is sprawling, requiring action by the European Parliament, the European Commission and, in all likelihood, individual national governments. Some version of the bill is likely to pass next year, officials say, but the details are almost certain to change as lobbying continues. Implementation remains several years off.

“I personally think that such a lobby from the European side to Congress would be counterproductive, in the sense that a decent U.S. politician would say, ‘Get out. Let us take care of our own business,’” said Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Dutch Data Protection Authority. “The problem is that minding your own business in a global economy is difficult.”

 
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