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US Tech Groups Criticized for EU Lobbying

Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of a key pan-European industry group has sharply criticized intensifying pressure from US lobbyists on behalf of Google and Facebook to relax EU privacy laws to suit Silicon Valley businesses.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo and several other top US tech companies, with the help of the Obama administration, have been increasing pressure on European lawmakers in recent months. They want standardized privacy laws across borders to make their business operations flow more easily, which would mean more lax EU legislation at a time when the bloc is proposing exactly the opposite

Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Industry Coalition for Data Protection known as the Article 29 Working Party, told the FT that European lawmakers were "fed up" with US tech companies trying to put their corporate interests ahead of laws that protect what Europe sees as fundamental rights.

"You're not going to change your fourth amendment because of a business model in Europe are you?" Mr Kohnstamm said, referring to the part of the US constitution that requires law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant to search personal property. "If such a lobby from the European side were organised towards Congress, we would be kicked out of there."

The US Mission to the EU wrote a document ahead of talks in January about the bloc's proposed privacy legislation, urging the EU to be "more flexible" about issues like consent from internet users and notification timelines companies must adhere to if they experience a data breach.

"Our framework will contain variations from EU law and it is critical that these differences not impede transatlantic commerce," the document said. "Inter-operability of our respective privacy regimes is critical to maintaining our extraordinary economic relationship, fostering trade and preventing non-tariff barriers, and unlocking the full potential for our economic innovation and growth."

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, last year proposed to harmonize legislation across the 27-country bloc, creating a single set of privacy rules. If implemented, the reform would set tough privacy standards for tech groups, including giving users greater information about the use of their personal data and giving national regulators the power to fine companies up to 2 percent of their global annual revenues.

The commission's proposal is being examined by the European Parliament, which has to approve the plan put together by the executive arm.

However, several members of parliament in Brussels have complained that they are lobbied by five or six different US law firms or companies every day.

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Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German politician leading an effort to impose stringent privacy and data rules in the European Parliament and the American Chamber of Commerce in Europe, has come under increasing pressure from US lobbyists to tone down his position.

"Throughout the last year there has been a massive campaign from the side of AmCham, which organised events throughout Europe and met with many MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg," said Mr Albrecht. "But now, since January when my report was published, lobbyists, especially from Silicon Valley, have stepped up their campaign to water down the EU privacy regulation."

Mr Kohnstamm said the US and European approaches to aligning business interests with citizens' rights were philosophically opposed, and asking Europeans to adapt their laws to US business models was out of line.

"In the US, privacy is a consumer business," he said. "In Europe, data protection is a fundamental right. We think what's right or wrong isn't decided in Silicon Valley, but is decided in our capitals."

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