European lawmakers on Monday voted overwhelmingly to approve new data protections aimed at shielding citizens’ private communications from the probing eyes of intelligence operatives and commercial snoopers.
The first major upgrade in the continent’s data privacy regulations in 18 years still faces months of negotiations to assimilate the laws and practices of the European Union’s 28 member states. But the 49-3 vote of a European Parliament committee to approve the draft law reflected widespread concern among Europe’s 500 million citizens for the privacy of their communications after revelations of massive data surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency.
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles H. Rivkin for an explanation after the daily Le Monde reported an NSA sweep of more than 70 million private French communications in a single month beginning late last year. The story was the latest in a string of diplomatically disruptive reports about U.S. intrusions into private communications based on leaked intelligence from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now taking refuge in Russia to evade criminal charges.
Le Monde’s report prompted President Obama to call French President Francois Hollande to discuss the issue. A White House statement said Obama assured Hollande that U.S. intelligence agencies were reviewing their practices to ensure that “we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.”
The legislation endorsed by the European parliamentarians wouldn’t protect Europeans’ communications from surveillance that the U.S. intelligence agencies request on national security grounds. The draft law recognizes an obligation on the part of European governments to comply with requests for data from law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations.
The U.S. administration has provided little justification for the NSA’s massive data sweeps except to say, as Obama did in his call to Hollande, that the fight against terrorism requires compromise on privacy matters.
German Greens Party lawmaker Jan Albrecht hailed the political consensus on the draft law as “a win-win situation for European companies, for European citizens, for consumers of the digital market in Europe.” A key sponsor of the legislation, he said he hoped it would be in force by the time of European Parliament elections in May 2014, the EU Observer reported.
The new data protections will target companies that pass on personal details of Europeans to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence without proper legal documentation, the news report said.
Fines of as much as 5% of a company’s annual revenue could be imposed on violators, which the authors of the legislation expect to act as a deterrent to companies to keep them from selling users’ personal information to advertisers and other commercial interests.