Tech giants urge Congress to give privacy rights to EU citizens

A group of tech giants is pressing House leadership to pass a bill giving key Privacy Act rights to European Union citizens, following a high court decision that damned the U.S. approach to online privacy.

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The Judicial Redress Act would give European citizens the right to sue in U.S. courts if their personal data is mishandled.

“Now more than ever, passage of [the Judicial Redress Act] is crucial to restoring public trust in our government and the U.S. technology sector,” the group wrote in a Thursday letter to Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerConservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Ohio) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).  

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) invalidated a 15-year-old data flow pact — the so-called Safe Harbor agreement — on the grounds that U.S. law doesn’t offer individuals sufficient privacy protections.

The court opinion specifically pointed to the lack of legal redress for European citizens whose data is misused in the U.S.

Although some critics have called the ECJ decision overly political, others see it as an unfortunate result of systemic European distrust of the American approach to privacy.

“The enactment of the Judicial Redress Act is a critical step in rebuilding the trust of citizens worldwide in both the U.S. government and our industry and in addressing the misperceptions underlying the decision,” the letter read.

“Restoring that trust is essential to continued cross-border data flows, which is vital for the continued competitiveness across all American industries.”

Signees included Google, Microsoft and Yahoo as well as several technology and Internet industry groups.

Tech groups have been especially critical of the ECJ decision, which they say has introduced harmful uncertainty into the cross-Atlantic market by invalidating a commonly used legal framework without providing a grace period. 

“The ruling creates uncertainty for the European and international companies that rely on Safe Harbor for their commercial data transfers, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises,” Computer & Communications Industry Association Europe Director Christian Borggreen said in a statement.

“We expect that a suspension of Safe Harbor will negatively impact Europe’s economy, hurt small and medium-sized enterprises, and the consumers who use their services, the most,” Borggreen added.

Both sponsors of the bill, Sens. Chris MurphyChris MurphyWeek ahead in health: All eyes turn to Dem convention Overnight Healthcare: Mysterious new Zika case | Mental health bill in doubt | Teletraining to fight opioids Hopes dim for mental health deal MORE (D-Conn.) and Orrin HatchOrrin HatchBacteria found ahead of Olympics underscores need for congressional action for new antibiotics Burr pledges to retire after one more Senate term Leaders appoint allies, adversaries to Puerto Rico growth task force MORE (R-Utah) called for movement on the Judicial Redress Act in the wake of the Safe Harbor decision.

Policy experts say the bill will likely move forward without too much friction, irrespective of the ECJ’s decision.

“I think the need to get that done was felt even without this decision,” Cameron Kerry, senior counsel at Sidley Austin and formerly the chief international negotiator for privacy and data regulations at the U.S. Department of Commerce, told The Hill when the decision was announced.

“It’s teed up to move forward and by all accounts is not regarded as controversial,” Kerry said. “Hopefully Congress will move swiftly to get it done.”

The Judicial Redress Act is also a prerequisite of a pending data-sharing umbrella agreement between the EU and the U.S. that would allow the two sides to exchange more data during criminal and terrorism investigations.

The EU says that if Congress does not pass legislation extending the right to seek legal redress for privacy violations to non-U.S. citizens, the agreement is a no-go.

Lawmakers and industry leaders are definite on the importance of the bill to the umbrella agreement — the legislation is not something that EU negotiators will likely budge on.

“This was listed not as a request but as a demand,” David Lieber, privacy counsel for Google, said on a panel in September.

“I think it’s fair for us to assume that that demand should be treated as such and Congress should move expeditiously.”