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.”