U.S. firms, officials resisting Europe’s push for stronger digital privacy rules

The push for strict new limits on how Internet companies collect and use consumer data in Europe has hit stiff resistance from U.S. industry groups and the Obama administration, dimming hopes that the effort could lead to expanded privacy safeguards for users worldwide.

Privacy advocates have embraced a bill before the European Parliament as their best chance to win a range of protections that have failed to gain political traction in Washington. The sprawling nature of the information economy means that standards imposed in Europe likely would affect consumers everywhere, possibly giving them new power to block collection of their personal information and demand that it be deleted from existing files.
But officials from the Commerce Department and the U.S. Mission to the European Union have largely echoed industry concerns that the bill could hinder innovation and economic growth worldwide while also hurting the ability of multinational corporations and governments to work across borders.

“We need to have a global conversation. This is too important. We can’t afford to have a Great Fire Wall of Europe. Europeans can’t afford to wall themselves off from the rest of the world,” said Cameron Kerry, general counsel to the Commerce Department, who has made several visits to Europe to discuss the data bill with officials there. “We have to maintain the free flows of information.”

The unusually intense lobbying campaign has caused irritation among some European officials who have been caught up in what amounts to a proxy struggle among American interests, with privacy advocates fighting industry groups as various U.S. government entities weigh in.

“This lobbying is somehow very one-sided to only protect Silicon Valley,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German lawmaker from the Green Party who is a member of the committee reviewing the bill.

U.S.-based privacy advocates have long favored an approach like the one in Europe, where privacy is regarded as a fundamental right and individual nations have data protection commissions to police how companies collect and use the personal information of their citizens. The United States, by contrast, has no overarching privacy law.

A delegation of American privacy advocates including the ACLU, the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Digital Democracy met this week with lawmakers in Brussels. There already are signs, however, that they are being outgunned by industry groups that have successfully lobbied for some proposed elements of the bill to be removed.

“Europe is really the last best hope for privacy in the world,” said Barry Steinhardt of Friends of Privacy USA, who was part of the delegation to Brussels this week. “The U.S. is the Wild West when it comes to privacy. There really is no law. The sheriffs only act when the bad guys come to town and do something terrible. The problem is there aren’t many sheriffs.”

In taking the fight to Europe, the consumer groups are drawing inspiration from an earlier generation of political fights in which activists sought out favorable battlegrounds — California, for example, for tougher auto emissions standards — to push causes moving slowly or not at all in Washington.

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