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Senate panel advances key privacy bill as deadline looms
A Senate committee on Thursday advanced a privacy bill that many see as critical to a pair of pending agreements between the U.S. and EU.
The Judicial Redress Act would grant European citizens certain privacy rights by allowing people from specific countries, designated by the U.S. attorney general, to sue in U.S. court if their personal data is mishandled.
It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 19-1.
"It is vital that Congress pass this bill to provide assurances to our European allies that the United States respects data privacy," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the bill's sponsors, said in a statement. "I am pleased that the Judiciary Committee reported the bill this morning and encourage prompt passage by the full Senate."
The bill could help U.S. negotiators reach a deal on a new Safe Harbor agreement with the EU before a Jan. 31 deadline.
The original agreement, struck down last fall over privacy concerns, permitted U.S. firms to legally handle European citizens' data. The continent's data privacy regulators have said that they will begin to take enforcement action against U.S. firms at the end of the month if there is no new agreement in place.
In addition to its implications for Safe Harbor, the bill is also a prerequisite of a pending data-sharing umbrella agreement reached last fall that would allow the U.S. and EU to exchange more data during criminal and terrorism investigations.
While both agreements are seen as vital to U.S. interests, some lawmakers have begun to express frustration that the bill is a giveaway to Europe.
"We're considering this bill because the Obama administration believed it needed to make concessions in order to share law enforcement information with the EU," Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Thursday.
The committee unanimously approved an amendment from Cornyn on Thursday, the result of an 11-hour scramble by lawmakers to address some Republican concerns with the bill.
The amendment would require the European countries covered by the bill to allow commercial data transfers with the U.S. In addition, it included a provision stating that the bill can not impede U.S. national security interests.
"Sharing law enforcement information should be a common interest. We shouldn't have to bargain for it. Period," Cornyn said Thursday, citing the common threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
He also cast the amendment as a show of U.S. strength in the negotiations over Safe Harbor.
"U.S. companies should not have to endure regulatory threats in an attempt to change our policy or laws. This amendment lays down these important markers," Cornyn said.
Those familiar with the negotiations on Safe Harbor are divided on the bill's importance to reaching a final agreement.
Many say that while passage of the Judicial Redress Act would help U.S. negotiators strike a deal, its failure wouldn't sink the discussions.
The bill's other co-sponsor, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), struck a more urgent tone.
"After months of delay, the Senate must immediately pass this crucial bill. Failure to enact this bill into law would devastate U.S.-E.U. data sharing protocols, put our national security at risk and present a major setback for U.S. technology companies who do business around the world," he said in a statement following Thursday's vote.