New EU data chief won't scrap Safe Harbor with US sans Plan B

MEPs worried that too many cooks will spoil the data protection broth

The EU's "Safe Harbor" data privacy agreement with the US might not really be safe, but Europe's new Justice Commissioner-designate said on Wednesday that she won't ditch the rule without an alternative.

Věra Jourová was in front of the European Parliament for her turn in the hot seat ahead of her appointment. MEPs from three different committees put questions to the Czech politician spanning issues from online dispute resolution to how to cope with NSA surveillance and reform of Europe's data protection laws – all of which will be in her portfolio.

Jourová said that she realized many MEPs were opposed to the Safe Harbor agreement – a voluntary code of conduct whereby American companies promise to treat EU citizens' data properly – but that the whole area was one of the most complex she had come across.

Following the Snowden revelations, MEPs voted to suspend the agreement, saying there was no guarantee that data was protected.

The Commission's current justice department is already in negotiations with the US for a new deal, the so-called Umbrella Agreement that would cover all EU data transfers to the US. One of the sticking points is Europeans' right of redress if their data is misused in the US.

Jourová said that she wants to ensure Europeans have same protection in US as US citizens. She said she would work closely with the Commission Vice President in charge of this area, Andrus Ansip.

"The trust in the US has been destroyed by the Snowden scandal," she said, adding that she would not make any concession on data protection rights even "across the ocean".

"I will always be in favour of data protection and privacy," she replied in response to a question from Jan Phillip Albrecht, the MEP charged with steering the controversial Data Protection Regulation through the Parliament.

Albrecht wanted to know how she would get all EU member states on board with the proposed regulation within the six-month deadline. Jourová said that although member states have their doubts about whether the regulation would be functional, they should at least attempt to stick to it.

Albrecht Tweeted afterwards that if Jourová wants to deliver in six months, she had better bring the Council to an agreement immediately.

In response to a question by Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola about online dispute resolution, Jourová mentioned the scourge of in-app purchases aimed at children – something that has exercised the Commission recently.

"I think that the internet in broad terms is a very good tool, but it is a tool that could be misleading for vulnerable groups of people. Children, for example, could be misled into thinking things are for free and then they would have to pay again and again," she said.

The European Parliament's Civil LIberties Committee chairman and MEP from London, Claude Moraes, said that he felt Jourová wasn't particularly well versed in data protection issues compared to Oettinger and he said this potential imbalance would be a problem.

"There are too many cooks in the whole data protection area," Moraes said – although he laid the blame for this at new Commission Chief Juncker's door and not Jourová's.

"This fragmented situation is just not acceptable to us. Safe Harbor, the Umbrella data agreement with the US, and data protection overhauls are very important issues and having to deal with five different commissioners all with different agendas is not going to be satisfactory." ®

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