Message to Mr Obama: Do not underestimate European anger
The United States would be well advised not to dismiss European anger over the NSA — but so far the US doesn’t seem to be taking the EU’s concerns seriously. Consider the safe harbour agreement, and the growing movement to suspend it.
Safe harbour is an official arrangement that allows American companies to circumvent the European data protection laws. These laws prohibit the export of personal European data to any country that does not have comparable data protection laws. The United States does not. On the face of it, then, this would stop companies like Google and Yahoo and Facebook operating in Europe since they ‘export’ their users’ data to servers in the US.
To avoid this, the EU and US developed the Safe Harbour. Provided individual companies are certified to provide a comparable level of data protection to that required in the EU, safe harbour allows US companies to store EU data in the US. That certification can be provided by a qualified third-party, or it can be self-certification. One of the conditions included is that personal EU data will not be passed on to third parties.
But this requirement is clearly being breached by the NSA’s Prism programme. It doesn’t matter whether US cloud companies are giving EU data to the NSA willingly or even knowingly — that it happens is in contravention to safe harbour. So the mood in Europe is simple: if safe harbour isn’t being honoured, it would be better to suspend it. If this were to happen as things stand, companies like Google and Facebook would no longer be able to operate in Europe.
Why I don’t think America is taking this threat seriously
In December 2013, a US think tank called Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) published a report concluding, “It would be unwise at this stage of the Safe Harbor to pull back on this effective program.” It claims that safe harbour is working — when Prism shows it is not.
FPF’s first argument is that “eliminating the Safe Harbor will not prevent the NSA from accessing EU citizens’ data.” Seriously? Is FPF really suggesting that since the NSA will disregard the law, we shouldn’t bother having any laws?
Its second argument is that even US companies that allow their safe harbour certifications to lapse are “still subject to FTC Section 5 enforcement for any substantive violations of
the Safe Harbor principles committed while it claims to be a member.” Luckily, we can test that assertion because the FTC has just made enforcement on 12 US companies for that very infringement.
Following complaints, the FTC took action against the companies which resulted in settlements. The settlement agreements now prohibit the companies from falsely stating to be Safe Harbour certified.
FTC takes safe harbor enforcement action against 12 US corporations
So, the punishment for ignoring safe harbour rules is to agree to stop ignoring safe harbour rules; which can be done via self certification.
This is not the behaviour of a country that is taking Europe seriously.
Is it even possible for Europe to suspend safe harbour?
This is the crux of the problem. America clearly believes that it would be impossible: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo etc, etc are so deeply woven into the social and economic fabric of Europe that it would not dare, in the final analysis, to pull the plug. That, I fear, would be a catastrophic underestimate of European determination.
Consider some of Europe’s recent announcements. It is preparing itself for a life without US tech giants, and even a life without the UK. (Incidentally, David Cameron will rapidly discover how insignificant the UK will be considered by the US if it can no longer influence the EU in favour of the US; and GCHQ, like the NSA, can no longer spy on Europe.)
Firstly, the EU has declared it wishes to be an honest broker between US and UN ownership of internet governance. In other words, the European bloc is no longer in blind support of the US position — it is preparing for, and in doing so it is making inevitable, a time when US control is removed.
Secondly, Angela Merkel has indicated a Franco-German intent to build a European internet outside of the NSA’s reach. US companies will either have to agree to play by European rules, or be excluded from Europe. (That, of course, applies equally to the UK and GCHQ. Nigel Farage of UKIP wants the UK to leave the EU; Cameron, who doesn’t, is close to getting the UK excluded by default.)
Faced with such a decision, the US companies will take a commercial position and play by the rules of what will effectively be a heavily policed virtual internet within and for Europe. Microsoft has already broken ranks and said it will ensure European data remains in servers within Europe. The problem for Microsoft will come when it receives a FISC order demanding EU data from those European servers. The danger for the United States is that under such circumstances, some of those companies will emigrate from America in order to maintain their European presence.
So, as I said at the beginning, the US would be well-advised to take Europe seriously. Europe is older and more patient than America. It can and will take the long view over this issue.