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Data protection not open for negotiation as part of US trade talks, says Reding

Disagreements over the legal standards that should apply to the protection of personal data have the potential to derail EU-US trade talks, according to the EU Justice Commissioner.

Viviane Reding told conference delegates in Washington earlier this week that EU citizens' data protection rights are "not negotiable".

The European Commission and officials in the US are currently trying to form a new trade agreement which the Commission has said is aimed at "removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US".

Talks between the EU and US representatives on the contents of the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) began in July.

However, Reding said that there are a number of "challenges" that need to be overcome before the TTIP is agreed and said that concerns with the framework for protecting personal data in the US could "derail" agreement on any trade deal that is built on the flow of information between the two trading areas.

"I warn against bringing data protection to the trade talks," Reding said. "Data protection is not red tape or a tariff. It is a fundamental right and as such it is not negotiable."

Recent revelations about US surveillance practices, including the National Security Agency's alleged use of a computer programme called 'Prism' to access data stored on the systems of some major US technology companies, has caused concern among EU law makers and privacy groups. An existing framework that facilitates the transfer of personal data from the EU to the US is currently under review.

Reding said that the US must rebuild trust over its attitude to privacy and called for there to be reforms to privacy rules in the US to match protections that will be provided under new data protection laws currently being negotiated within the EU.

"Once a single, coherent set of rules is in place in Europe, we will expect the same from the US," Reding said. "This is a necessity in order to create a stable basis for personal data flows between the EU and the US. Inter-operability and self-regulation is not enough. The existing scheme has been criticised by European industry and questioned by European citizens: they say it is little more than a patch providing a veil of legitimacy for the US firms using it."

"Data flows between the EU and the US must therefore rely on solid legal foundations on both sides. The on-going data protection reform will be the foundation on the European side of a solid data bridge that will link the US and Europe. We expect the US to quickly set its side of the bridge. It is better to have steady footing on a bridge than to worry about the tide in a 'Safe' or, after all, not so 'Safe' harbour," she added.

Reding also called for the US to recognise the legal rights of Europeans to "judicial redress", as currently provided by the EU to US citizens, in relation to the violation of privacy rights by law enforcement bodies. She said "the fight against terrorism" and "the concept of national security" does not justify the erosion of all privacy rights.

"The US will have to show that they treat Europe as a real partner," Reding said. "And that they take European concerns about privacy and data protection very seriously. Including a legal provision on judicial redress for EU citizens, regardless of their residence, in the forthcoming US Privacy Act is an essential step towards restoring trust among partners."

"And restoring such trust will be very much needed if we want to successfully conclude the TTIP negotiations in the foreseeable future. Otherwise, the European Parliament may decide to reject the TTIP. There is still time to prevent this from happening. But clear signals and concrete commitments will be needed from here, from Washington," she said.

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