European Citizens Right To Sue US Over Data Privacy

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

President Obama aims to allow European citizens to sue the United States over the misuse of their personal data

European citizens could soon have the right to the sue the United States if they feel that their personal data has been misused, for instance in NSA surveillance.

The US attorney general revealed the development on Wednesday, when he said that the administration of President Barack Obama would be pressuring the US Congress to enact the necessary legislation.

European Rights

The development is a remarkable admission by the United States at the depth of European anger at the snooping activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The spying activities of the NSA, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, also potentially threatens European co-operation in data sharing activities between both sides of the Atlantic.

The news that European citizens could be granted the right to the sue the United States was revealed by US Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Greece for a meeting with his EU counterparts. The US and Europe are close to agreeing a global trade deal (TTIP) which has been criticised on other levels, but might give European citizens the right to sue the US as a spin-off.

america security - Shutterstock - © Bruce RolffThe deal could might see European countries sharing certain personal data with US authorities for law enforcement purposes and, according to Reuters, Holder told journalists that the Obama administration is committed to making sure that “EU citizens would have the same right to seek judicial redress” on privacy issues that US citizens would have.

Holder said he would work with Congress on related legislation. However it is worth noting that no bill has yet been introduced, and the Republicans hold the majority of seats in the US House of Representatives.

European reaction to the US was quick, cautious, and mostly positive.

Important Step

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding described Holder’s announcement as “an important step in the right direction.”

“The announcement made by the Attorney General of the US Mr Eric Holder to take legislative action in order to provide for judicial redress for Europeans who do not live in the US is an important step in the right direction,” Reding said.

But she warned that the US has to now deliver on its promise.

“Legislative action by the US Congress establishing enforceable judicial redress rights for Europeans in the US can open the door to closing the deal on the data protection umbrella agreement,” said Reding. “This is an important first step towards rebuilding trust in our transatlantic relations Now the announcement should be swiftly translated into legislation so that further steps can be taken in the negotiation. Words only matter if put into law. We are waiting for the legislative step.”

Meanwhile a separate deal, known as the “Safe Harbour” agreement, which permits US companies to gather customer information in Europe and store it beyond European judicial reach in the US, is reportedly being renegotiated.

Earlier this month, the Irish High Court asked the top European court to review the data sharing “Safe Harbour” agreement between Europe and the US. It was acting on a case brought by an Austrian student group europe-v-facebook.org.

Max Schrems, an Austrian post-graduate law student, is the founder and driving force behind the europe-v-facebook group, and he argued in his complaint that the Edward Snowden disclosures show that there is no effective data protection regime in the United States.

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