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NSA Scandal

EU Parliament approves privacy package

The European Parliament has voted on an action plan on the future of data protection in the EU on Wednesday. After allegations of mass surveillance, the package was passed with a large margin.

When members of the European Parliament (EP) clicked the buttons of their voting machines on Wednesday (12.03.2014) in Strasbourg, there was tension in the air. Claude Moraes worried whether the bulk of the last months' work would have been in vain or not. After all, one of the votes was on the report which was put together after a recent parliamentary inquiry into mass surveillance, which Moraes was the rapporteur of.

He needn't have worried. The European parliament has rubber-stamped the data protection reform. Moraes' report was part of a package deal together with a regulation and a directive on data protection.

"The data regulation and the directive are the single biggest pieces of legislation the EP has ever passed," the Labour MEP told DW. "There were 4,000 amendments and they deal with something incredibly unique: no international or national parliament has ever tried to get the balance between privacy and internet usage."

Labour party candidate Claude Moraes (Photo: EPA/FRANTZESCO KANGARIS)

Moraes: 'No national parliament has ever tried to get the balance between privacy and internet usage.'

Passed with a large margin

The first element of the package, the regulation, was approved by an overwhelming number of MEPs in Strasbourg: it received 621 votes in favour, 10 against and 22 abstentions. The regulation contains criteria for data processing, such as the necessity for people to give their consent when their data is processed, as well as more transparent information on companies' privacy terms. It also includes a compromise on a so-called ‘one-stop-shop': EU citizens will be able to seek help from the national data protection authority of their choice, no matter in which EU country they believe their privacy rights are being violated. Further aspects include penalties - up to five percent of global sales - for companies in violation of privacy rules, and strict rules for data exchange processes with third countries.

The 'yes' to the regulation means that MEPs can soon start negotiating with national governments. The directive did not have as many supporters, but was still passed with 371 votes in favour, 276 against and 30 abstentions. Conservative parties in the EP had indicated they wouldn't approve of it. Timothy Kirkhope from ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) wrote in a statement that he “cannot support this proposal as its overly prescriptive nature would prevent law enforcement officers from carrying out legitimate investigations.”

The directive sets out rules for data protection rights in the fields of police and the judiciary. The European Council of ministers has blocked the reform package for more than two years, with Germany one of the major opponents of more data protection rights in law enforcement.

EU Parliament vs member states

Moraes was concerned that conservative MEPs from the EPP, a political group in the EP that includes Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU, may also abstain from or vote against his inquiry report. According to Moraes, that would have further weakened the Parliament's negotiating position in talks with the other big European institution, the Council of national ministers.

"We wanted to say to the council: put this together quickly because you are the ones who are always slow and blocking the legislation of the citizens," he explained.

"This committee has not been interested in finding out facts," Timothy Kirkhope from the ECR said in a statement. "It has just been the most expensive and painstaking exercise in collecting together press cuttings and allegations, and reacting with little consideration towards the security challenges we face."

A few months ago, the vote in favor of a package to improve EU citizens' privacy rights might have been even more pronounced, insiders are convinced. "The reason why we got credibility with the inquiry was to do with timing, many of Snowden's allegations happened at the same time," Moraes told DW. "And we were the only institution who were actually legislating on data protection for citizens at the time of Snowden's allegations. So we were anticipating the world as Snowden was portraying it."

Not much public resonance

The Snowden Files by Luke Harding

Luke Harding's book 'The Snowden Files' comes out in Germany in April

That momentum seems to have faded a bit. Talks about the free trade agreement between the EU and the US are now well underway. The Ukraine crisis is dominating newspapers' headlines. Revelations about EU states' secret service activities and their collaboration with the NSA never caused more than public dismay.

British newspaper The Guardian was the news outlet which first published Edward Snowden's material. In the months that followed, its journalists have mapped out the reach of GCHQ, the British secret service. "For the first five or six months after we first started publishing these stories, there was a kind of silence. It was like throwing stones into a lake. They didn't skim, they just sank," Guardian journalist Luke Harding told DW. "There was not much public resonance. Most of the newspapers ignored the story, and the political class was either hostile or silent."

The difference in perception of Snowden's allegations was more striking elsewhere in the EU. "Germans intuitively get privacy," Harding said. "They don't need to be schooled or tutored about how important it is because of their historical experience. The memories of Stasi are real. There's a whole generation that is still alive that grew up with that."

Moraes believes spying activities still have a positive connotation with most British people. "Britain is a country that was not occupied during the war, it did not go through mass surveillance," he said. "In fact, intelligence and espionage had worked the other way, as culturally good, as exciting, it has been linked very much to our imperial gains in the post-war period. So it has a very different image."

Scene from Live And Let Die GB 1978, with Roger Moore as James Bond

Secret agent James Bond influences the current debate, says Harding

And then there's 007. "I do think James Bond and that whole kind of cultural trope of pretty spies who are jumping out of airplanes and helicopters and saving the queen that is something," said Harding. "But it's also just to do with the fact that apart from some domestic terrorism and Northern Ireland - we've had centuries of stability. This has made us a little bit dozy when it comes to things like privacy."

Pragmatism and hypocrisy

In Germany, Snowden's revelations have led to an intense public debate, with members of the Green party calling for Germany to offer Snowden asylum. But Luke Harding doesn't believe Snowden will be invited by the chancellor. "Realistically - even though of course Merkel was outraged by the fact that she was bugged for a decade and probably Gerhard Schröder before that - she is a supreme pragmatist," he said. "And offering Snowden asylum would cause major damage to the transatlantic partnership. That's a bill that she or no other senior German politician would be prepared to pay."

Snowden's latest revelations even suggest the NSA pressured the German government to make certain changes to their laws and to bulk collect their citizens' data. "So there's an element of hypocrisy running through all of this," said Harding.

While intelligence services are the competence of national countries, there are many gray areas where EU law is affected. Still, only national parliaments can set the guidelines for their services' activities.