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EU Reviews Data Protection Laws

by Ulrika Lomas,, Brussels

20 July 2010

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, at a meeting of the European Union (EU) advisory body on the protection of personal data and privacy, made the case for working towards a comprehensive and coherent single market of data protection.

She told the meeting that EU rules on the fundamental right to the protection of personal data need to address the impact of new technologies, which allow for the global exchange of information that has become much easier and faster. The EU internal market needs to ensure that personal data can flow freely from one member state to another.

However, such freedom, she said, should go hand-in-hand with action “to strengthen individuals' rights by ensuring that they enjoy a high level of protection and maintain control over their data. This is particularly important in the on-line environment, where often privacy policies are unclear, non-transparent and not always in full compliance with existing rules.”

“Individuals need to be well and clearly informed, in a transparent way, by data controllers – be it services providers, search engines or others – about how and by whom their data are collected and processed. They need to know what their rights are if they want to access, rectify or delete their data. And they should be able to actually exercise these rights without excessive constraints,” Reding said.

Her opinion was that the above requires the EU “to provide a level playing field for all economic operators in different member states. This is currently not the case: indeed, one of the main concerns expressed by businesses in the recent consultations is the lack of harmonization and the divergences of national measures and practices. It is therefore clear that we need to provide further harmonization and approximation of data protection rules at EU level.”

In addition, businesses and public authorities will need to play their part. If certain administrative formalities could be reduced, simplified and harmonized on their behalf, they “will need to better assume their responsibilities by putting in place certain mechanisms such as the appointment of data protection officers and the carrying out of privacy impact assessments.”

Furthermore, she believed that personal data needs to be adequately protected when transferred and processed outside the EU. To that end, she said that she intends “to improve, strengthen and streamline the current procedures for international data transfers, including in the areas of police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.”

She disclosed that the EU will continue to promote the development of high data protection standards at international level, by cooperating with relevant international organizations as well as by the conclusion of international agreements “like the one the EU is about to negotiate with the United States on data protection in judicial and police cooperation in criminal matters.”

“This agreement will establish a legal framework for data protection,” she said, “but will not constitute in itself the legal basis for specific transfers of personal data. A transfer of personal data will continue to require a specific agreement providing the legal basis for it.”

During a previous speech in Washington, Reding had been able to express her thoughts on the prospective data protection agreement with the US, which she called a “real opportunity for policy makers in Europe and in the US to reach an overarching agreement on data protection in order to bridge the existing differences on the application of privacy rights.”

The recent approval by the European Parliament of the EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme Agreement, applying to bank data transfers to the US, she said “marked a new era of trust between the US and Europe”, but had set “a clear time limit for working on a general agreement on transatlantic data protection.”

She has proposed that the EU should to start negotiations with the US on an umbrella data protection agreement. With the aim of providing legal certainty to data transfers by ensuring that they are subject to high standards of data protection on both sides of the Atlantic, she confirmed that “EU member states are currently discussing the fine print of the proposal before negotiations can officially start.”

TAGS: individuals | European Commission | commerce | law | agreements | internet | e-commerce | United States | standards | regulation | European Union (EU) | Europe

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