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EU demands protection against U.S. data surveillance

European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding addresses the European Parliament's Committee on civil liberties, justice and home affair
European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding addresses the European Parliament's Committee on civil liberties, justice and home affair

By John O'Donnell

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission called on Tuesday for new protection for Europeans under United States' law against misuse of personal data, in an attempt to keep in check the U.S. surveillance revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said she wanted Washington to follow through on its promise to give all EU citizens the right to sue in the United States if their data is misused. "I have ... made clear that Europe expects to see the necessary legislative change in the U.S. sooner rather than later, and in any case before summer 2014," she said.

Reding's message was reinforced in a draft report obtained by Reuters that called for "very close attention by the EU" in monitoring data-exchange agreements given the "large-scale collection and processing of personal information under U.S. surveillance programs".

The remarks underline a growing sense of unease in Europe at a delicate moment in transatlantic relations, when the globe's two biggest economies seek a trade pact to deepen ties.

Just months after U.S. officials confirmed the existence of PRISM, a program to collect data from Google, Facebook and other U.S. companies, European experts vented their frustration.

"EU citizens do not enjoy the same rights and procedural safeguards as Americans," officials wrote, when exploring data transfers.

In the report, they highlighted the need for improving transparency in the 'Safe Harbour' scheme that allows companies in Europe who gather personal information about customers, for example, to send it to the United States.

But some believe that the stance of the EU's executive, which writes laws for the 28 countries in the union, is feeble.

"We are an economic giant and we behave like a political midget," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament. "The Commission and the member states are extremely timid and soft. They are failing their citizens."

"It's not a legal question," she said. "It's about Europe behaving like a politically self-confident entity."

In 't Veld is a member of the European Parliament's civil liberties committee, which recently voted for a tougher data privacy regime in Europe.

That vote cleared the way for negotiations with member states, with the aim of having a new code of conduct agreed by May next year, the first fundamental updating of Europe's data protection laws since 1995.

As well as stiff fines for companies that break the rules, the new regime would oblige companies to seek consent before using personal information.

It would block data-sharing with non-EU countries unless approved by an EU supervisor and establish the "right to erasure" - the ability for consumers to request the deletion of their digital trace, including photographs, emails and Internet postings.

But Mark Watts of London law firm Bristows said Europe's approach was misguided.

"The data protection regulation is not ambitious at all," he said. "Much of it is based on old legislation before the world wide web even existed."

(Additional reporting by Tom Körkemeier)

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