Brittan plays down US threat over data protection

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol.4, No.7, 19.2.98, p5
Publication Date 19/02/1998
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Date: 19/02/1998

By Peter Chapman

TRADE Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan this week dismissed US threats to take its fight against new EU data protection laws to the World Trade Organisation as premature.

Ira Magaziner, US President Bill Clinton's Internet policy adviser, ignited the dispute last week when he said that the US would "fight very strongly" against Union rules, due to enter into force in October this year, which will curb the transfer of data about EU citizens to the US.

"We are taking the position that we don't accept the EU directive. If we have to go to the WTO about it, we will," he told a meeting of the US' National Press Club.

But Brittan was quick to play down the threat of trade action over the issue.

"There is quite a long way to go and it can't go to the WTO unless there is a barrier to trade," he told European Voice.

The Commissioner insisted that the EU directive was not an attempt to create an obstacle to the trade in databases of information such as customer profiles, used by firms to target their marketing campaigns.

He also stressed that the rules, agreed in 1995, were needed to protect the rights of people whose details are exported.

"I think everybody realises that it would be crazy to create a barrier to trade, but equally everybody thinks that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to have data protection," he said.

Under the terms of the directive, exports of data to countries without equivalent protection written down in law will be subject to strict regulation.

Exporters will have to seek authorisation from the special data protection registrars set up in each member state.

EU firms, which also fear the impact of the directive, have been busy working out their own responses to the extra bureaucracy imposed by the need to have exports checked by registrars.

The UK's Confederation of British Industry, for example, wants the British government to allow companies to use 'officially approved' contracts when they agree to sell data to countries which fail to match the EU criteria.

In the meantime, Brittan admitted that working out an agreement with the US and other countries affected by the directive would not be easy. He said that no specific meetings had been scheduled to try to bridge the yawning gap that has opened up between the EU's approach towards legislating for data protection and the US' preference for industry declarations and codes of conduct.

"We will have to try and work out how we resolve that. I do not pretend to have a solution," he said.

Meanwhile the US seems reluctant to change and extend its limited privacy laws which protect data in narrowly defined markets such as credit reports and video rental records.

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