You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

An Accidental Ally For the European Union: “Thank you, Mr. Snowden,” says European Commission VP Reding in Hangout Debate

BY Antonella Napolitano | Thursday, January 9 2014

Screenshot of the hangout debate with European Commission VP Viviane Reding

The year 2013 was a "Year for the Citizens" in the European Union where the institution pledged itself to "encourage dialogue between all levels of government, civil society, and business." But in many countries citizens were more hostile than open to communicating with an institution often perceived as distant and intrusive. That's probably one of the reasons why the European Commission is launching a series of online initiatives to create a space for debate with the most important members of the European institutions.

Last Tuesday, the Vice President of the European Commission Viviane Reding hosted an online debate on Google hangout, joined by five journalists and activists from all over Europe. Reding is also the Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

The experiment will be replicated on January 16th with an open Google hangout that allows anyone to join and question VP Reding (the hashtag is #AskReding).

The hour plus session involved guests representing a variety of European countries, including Italian blogger Arianna Ciccone of Valigia Blu, Bulgarian journalist Adelina Marini founder of EU Inside, German journalist Alexander Sander of Nez Politik, British blogger Mike Smithson of Political Betting, and Polish journalist Jakub Gornicki who is also the organizer of our PDF Poland-CEE conference).

Data protection quickly emerged as the main theme of the debate, due to the revelations over these past months from Edward Snowden, but also because of the data protection law Reding has been working on for the last two years. The law, which would update the currently outdated law of 1995, seeks to provide a single set of rules for European and international companies that use this data in their business.

VP Reding had to admit that Snowden proved to be an accidental ally in her talks with the US government in pushing for an umbrella agreement on data protection: in her recent talks with members of the US Congress, she found that there was now an openness to discuss the issue of including "reciprocity" into the agreement.

“There is a problem of real reciprocity,” she explained in the hangout. While in Europe, American citizens can go to court on matters of data protection, European citizens can not do so in the US, a matter that continually creates legal problems.

When the journalist Arianna Ciccone asked Reding about web anonymity, the VP commissioner said that tracking and profiling will not be allowed by the data protection law without explicit consent from the citizens.

A followup question on whistleblower protections prompted Reding to publicly acknowledge the work of Snowden: “Thank you, Mr. Snowden”, she said. “Without protection of privacy,” she later added, “there will be no Internet world.”

Reding pointed out, however, that whistleblower protection (and asylum) is a matter of competent national laws and not something that EU treaties can address.

Praising Snowden may be the popular thing to do in Europe at the moment. After all, 2014 is an election year for the European Union; elections will be held between May 22nd and 25th.

But VP Commissioner Reding has her own reasons to thank Snowden: the data protection law that she has been trying to push forward for the last two years cannot be effective without US support. Snowden's revelations have created a willingness by the U.S. to at least open discussions on a data protection law.

The first draft of the data protection law was presented by Reding exactly two years ago, as I previously reported in techPresident: "The regulation would compel Web sites to tell consumers why their data is being collected and retain it for only as long as necessary. If data is stolen, sites would have to notify regulators within 24 hours." The first draft of the law is available here.

“Personal data is the currency of today's digital market. And like any currency it needs stability and trust,” said Reding at the time.

Two years later, it is truer than ever.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list.