EU Vote on Privacy Agreement Due This Week

WASHINGTON (03/27/2000) - U.S. government negotiators are cautiously optimistic that the data privacy agreement they reached two weeks ago with their European counterparts will be approved this week by an European Commission committee.

The committee is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday in Brussels and is expected to announce a decision on the agreement, David Aaron, under secretary of commerce for international trade, said today at a briefing.

U.S. negotiators who worked for more than two years on the agreement, reached March 14, believe a majority of the committee will support the agreement, but Aaron said the U.S. side knows some of the 15 EU countries opposed it. He declined to say which countries, but said they are causing "nail biting" on the U.S. side.

Barbara Wellbery, Aaron's counsellor on electronic commerce, said that while U.S. officials believe they will get a green light, the agreement could be rejected if one large EU country and one small one vote no.

The agreement is designed to provide guidance to U.S. companies that do business in European Union countries to help ensure that they comply with the EU's privacy directive, which is more stringent than U.S. laws. Under the agreement, EU countries accept the notion that companies can join a "safe harbor" system requiring them to adhere to seven principles.

The most important principles of safe harbor are that companies that export personal data about their employees or their customers out of Europe promise to notify an individual that personal data is being collected, agree to give them an option to refuse to allow the data to be collected and that they give individuals access to their personal data.

U.S. negotiators were able to convince the Europeans that the safe harbor system will ensure privacy protection for EU citizens' personal information, Aaron said. Taken together, the seven principles bridge the gap between the U.S. and EU systems for governing privacy.

The agreement, however, drew criticism from U.S. observers, who say it will be meaningless if it is ever challenged. [See "EU-US Privacy Deal Rotten, Observers Say," March 14].

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