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Top EU Candidates Express Support of European Data Privacy, Skepticism of U.S. Policies

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 22 2014

Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker listen to a question. (screenshot/ARD)

The two top candidates for the presidency of the European Commission both expressed strong support for European data privacy principles and skepticism of American government and corporate technology influence in a debate broadcast Tuesday evening on German public television ahead of the European elections that are underway from Thursday to Sunday.

As part of the town hall format of the debate, the moderators allowed invited audience members, who were selected with the help of pollsters to be representative of the German population, to pose question to the candidates, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, originally from Germany, and Conservative Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg.

Data Privacy Standards

When it came to questions of data privacy and technology, many of the questioners expressed distrust of U.S. policies.

One young woman cited public opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which opponents feared could institute flawed copyright and other regulations or standards, as she asked the candidates whether there would be more public involvement in such negotiations rather than backroom deals or decisions by an arbitration court.

"When we sign trade agreements, such as the TTIP with the U.S., then not so our standards are pushed lower," Schulz said. "I would inherently demand from the U.S. that they accept our standards. ...We need the data privacy guidelines for the protection of our own data privacy, before that there can't be a treaty with the U.S."

Another audience member laughed and expressed strong skepticism.

"The Amis, they may ask us for permission," he said, using a German slang term for Americans that can have a negative connotation, "but the [government's reassurances] aren't taken seriously in Germany."

Schulz emphasized that European cohesion on the issue was important. "If one single government in Europe, even strong Germany, wants to confront the U.S., it is too weak," he said. "That's why I advocate that we use the strength of the European Union, we are the richest market of the world, to say to the Americans, but also to the Chinese... whoever wants to access our market has to respect our standards. If we stay together as 28 countries, then we can push that through. That's why I'm a EU politician."

Juncker expressed a similar view. "We have to make clear, also to the Americans, that we don't negotiate over data privacy," he went on to say. "Americans must also listen to us, not just eavesdrop on us, when we say something," he quipped, to applause to his play on words, as the terms "listening" and "eavesdropping" use the same word in German.

A recent Pew survey found that only three percent of Germans trusted American data privacy standards compared to the 85 percent that trusted European standards, while 29 percent of Americans trusted European data privacy standard compared to the 49 percent that trusted American standards.

Another woman in the audience reflected that distrust. She suggested that while in negotiations Americans may appear to agree and operate under European standards, companies would still manage to get around the rules when it comes to issues such as fracking and GMO products in fast food restaurants.

Schulz noted that he played a big role in the European Parliament opposition to the SWIFT banking data transfer and passenger name records transfer agreements between the U.S. and Europe. "If there is one guarantee for the fact that the attempt to lower our standards will fail, then it is the European Parliament," he said. As commission president, he said he would establish an advisory committee with representatives from unions, consumer protection organizations, churches and civil society to advise on these issues. "I want to hear the opinion of the citizens because my impression is that the way the [trade agreement] is currently defined, it won't find a majority in Europe," he said.

Juncker echoed those concerns. "We need this agreement, but not at every price," he said. "When we negotiate with the Americans, we can't let our pants down....This is about European values, we can't abandon accomplished goals that have achieved consensus in Europe," he added, though he said he believed the treaty would lead to more growth and jobs in the U.S. and Europe. "We need to be tough in negotiations ...., but I want to have a result where Europe gains something and not where Europeans lose."

Surveillance and the Right to be Forgotten

Another woman said the revelations about the NSA reminded her of the way she felt several years ago when her home was robbed and her diary was among the items stolen. She asked how the candidates aimed to ensure that the law would not be left behind by new "algorithms."

"The fact that some American Internet companies have begun to treat us humans as a commodity and use our data for their economic gain leads me to want to introduce a basic rule on the European level: The control over my data, your data, is your business," Schulz said. "These companies must be obligated to delete data by request." He cited the recent EU court decision concerning Google and the "right to be forgotten," calling it a "starting point" to insist that "no Internet company can do what it wants with my data without my permission."

He also explained that prior to the NSA revelations, he had been unaware that the European Parliament offices in Washington D.C. had been under surveillance. When the reason invoked for this was "suspicion," he said he replied that the European Parliament wasn't planning terror attacks in the U.S. and eavesdropping wasn't necessary.

"I find it scandalous that a country that claims for it itself to be a befriended power, treats other countries, including their heads of state, like borderline criminals that need to be kept under surveillance," he said. "We are being treated like an enemy power by the U.S. security services and there needs to be an end to that. What I find to be the most dramatic is that the American political system no longer controls the NSA, but one has the sneaking suspicion that the NSA controls American politics. That for me is an alarming development."

Juncker agreed that it was important that companies follow European data privacy laws. "If a company has its headquarters in Silicon Valley and does business in Europe, then European rules must apply," he said. "Europe is the continent of data privacy and we must not waver on that."

Does America or Europe Own the Future?

Juncker called it a tragedy that the large and established Internet companies are American firms, "because we were asleep in Europe." While Europe had pioneered the Global System for Mobile (GSM) technology and other standards, he said, Americans had taken the upper hand. "We can't surrender the future to Americans and others," he said, adding that Europe was sometimes too "lazy about the future."

Schulz, suggesting that the EU Commission has filed anti-trust charges against "every spaghetti manufacturer who makes a price fixing agreement with a colleague," and demanded to know when Europe will go ahead and "finally file those anti-trust charges against these monopolists that are necessary so that we can create investment opportunities for European companies in this sector. That's how we can create balance between the U.S and Europe."

Another participant described to Juncker how "if I were to send you an e-mail today, it would probably go through Frankfurt, Cornwall, somewhere in Arizona, and then Holland and then back to Frankfurt and Hamburg, and you have no influence on what the Americans do with that data." He asked Juncker if he could imagine a European network so that users could be aware of when e-mail messages leave European jurisdictions.

Juncker reiterated that European data privacy rules should apply universally to all data transactions in Europe. "We can be mad about Google, Amazon, and others...I would prefer these companies were in Europe, then we would not have to run after them and we wouldn't have to be afraid of them."

Transparency, Citizen Involvement and Online Censorship

Issues of transparency and public involvement also came up in other contexts. One questioner noted that of the 15,000 lobbying agencies in Brussels, only 6,500 are listed in the online transparency registry. Schulz said he would like to extend the registry to also cover meetings with EU Commission members, and said he always listed meetings with lobbyists on his webpage.

Juncker noted that he was against public meetings of the European Council, made up of the heads of the member states, but criticized heads of state for saying one thing in private, and then claiming in public or in the media that they had won or lost, while he added that he supported a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament. Another exchange touched on concerns over the privatization of water, which was the subject of one of the first successful EU citizens' initiatives.

Both candidates also agreed that Turkey's online censorship policies hurt its chances at EU membership. "A country that forbids Twitter...currently has no place in the EU," Schulz said. "Whoever forbids Twitter, hasn't understood the future," Juncker echoed.

Whither WePromise?

As the debate wound down, Kirsten Fiedler, managing director of the European Digital Rights Initiative, noted on Twitter that neither Juncker nor Schulz had signed on to the We Promise initiative. As techPresident previously reported, EDRI drafted the charter to encourage members of the public and EU candidates to express their support for data protection and privacy legislation, an update of copyright legislation and opposition to blanket unchecked surveillance measures, among other subjects.

According to the website, as of Wednesday night, over 3,500 users have pledged to vote for candidates who support the charter. The countries with the most candidates supporting the charter are 64 in Spain, 59 in France, 52 in Germany, 39 in the U.K., 30 in Finland, 29 in the Netherlands, 21 in Poland and 19 in Austria. In France, Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom, none of the candidate pledges come from the main center-right Conservative Party, though there are many from the Pirate Parties, the Social Democratic, Labour, Green, Left-Wing and a handful from Liberal parties. Net policy politicians from the German and Austrian Social Democratic parties had told techPresident that they would recommend supporting the charter to their fellow candidates.

In a follow-up, at least one local German MEP candidate, Dennis Radtke, from the conservative Christian Democrats, told techPresident he supported the ideas articulated in the charter, but had not signed it because he had not personally received any outreach from the campaign. The top CDU EU candidate for Germany, David McAllister, the former premier of the state of Lower Saxony, stopped short of endorsing the charter in an e-mail to techPresident, noting that the campaign "takes on central questions with which we are confronted in the context of net policy," referring to the party's campaign platform, but added that candidates would have to decide for themselves whether to sign.

Angelika Niebler, an MEP from the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, wrote in an e-mail to techPresident that she had not signed the charter because she found it "too narrow and one-sided." Niebler, who is a member of the center-right European People's Party's 'Internet: Today and Tomorrow' working group, wrote that she found it was "lacking aspects as for example the reform of the copyright directive in our digital age or the issue of further strengthening Europe’s competitiveness in the digital world."

TechPresident also recently reported on how European political activists are turning to viral videos and other online tools to encourage interest in the European elections.

And while Schulz sees the "right to be forgotten" as a starting point, Americans are more skeptical, as Stephen Colbert recently expressed on his show.


With Antonella Napolitano

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