EU likely to ignore Bush request on data protection

European Union lawmakers are expected to ignore a request by the administration of US President George W Bush to revise a data protection law they are drafting in a way that would allow law enforcement officers greater access to information about telephone and internet messages.

          European Union lawmakers are expected to ignore a request by the administration of US President George W Bush to revise a data protection law they are drafting in a way that would allow law enforcement officers greater access to information about telephone and internet messages.

          Last month, Bush sent a wish list of 47 measures he wanted Europe to take to help in the war on terrorism. His requests came in response to an offer of help from the acting president of the European Union, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, and President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, during their visit to the White House shortly after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11.

          The administration asked the EU to revise a draft directive on data protection for telecommunication, due to be voted on in the European Parliament on Tuesday, to permit the retention of data for what it termed "a reasonable period."

          The existing wording of the directive that President Bush wanted to change stated that data about times and durations of phone calls and the transmission of email messages should not be retained by telecom companies and internet service providers any longer than is necessary for billing purposes.

          Marjory Van den Broeke, a spokeswoman for the European Parliament, said Monday that President Bush's request for the revision "was not mentioned once" during a short debate this evening ahead of the vote on Tuesday afternoon. She declined to comment further on the request.

          The European Parliament is expected to move in the opposite direction by strengthening the privacy codes about data retention, she said. The parliamentarians have adopted amendments that will narrow the scope for exceptional circumstances that would permit retention beyond the required time needed for billing purposes.

          The draft of the directive written by the European Commission, the EU's executive body, says that retention of data beyond that time should be "appropriate". The parliamentarians are expected to add that longer data retention should only be allowed where it is "proportionate and limited in time," Van den Broeke said.

          The commission said Monday that although it fully shares the concerns of President Bush, "we feel that the present draft, which was agreed by member states of the EU before the summer, represents a good balance between the needs of law enforcement officials to investigate crimes, and the need to safeguard civil liberties," said spokesman Per Haugaard. He declined to comment on the European Parliament's planned amendments to that version of the text ahead of the vote on Tuesday.

          Civil liberties groups on both sides of the Atlantic on Monday wrote to Verhofstadt expressing their concern about President Bush's request.

          "While we support the President's efforts to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of terrorism and to work with government leaders to protect public safety, we do not believe that this proposal is appropriate or necessary," the letter read. Signatories to the letter include the Washington, DC-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre, the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Information Policy Research based in London and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties in Dublin.

          "President Bush is asking European governments to impose obligations on European companies that would not be imposed on US companies," the groups said, adding that if the Europeans agreed to meet the request, this would also affect civil liberties in the US.

          "There is a significant risk, if this proposal goes forward, that US law enforcement agencies will seek data held in Europe that it could not obtain at home, either because it was not retained or because US law would not permit law enforcement access," they said.

          Telecom companies and internet service providers oppose having to retain data any longer than necessary because it costs them money to do so, said Joe McNamee, an EU affairs executive with the association of European internet service providers, EuroISPA.

          The draft data protection directive allows member states some leeway in interpreting the issue of data retention. The UK, which tilts further toward law enforcement in the balancing act with civil liberties than do its fellow EU members, is believed to be pursuing sweeping proposals to give law enforcement agencies access to phone and internet data from every UK telephone and Internet user, and that this access will not be restricted to anti-terrorist investigations, according to a report last week in the UK newspaper The Guardian.

          "There is no legislation in place anywhere at the moment that permits open-ended data retention, as President Bush appears to be asking for in Europe," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre. "Retention may be justified when an investigation is under way, but why is President Bush pushing Europe further than this?" he asked.

          Other items on President Bush's list of requests include measures to ensure that the EU implements international aviation security measures imposed in the United States after September 11, establishing measures to share information on immigration lookouts for individuals associated with terrorist organisations, blocking activities linked to terrorism within the framework of the draft EU legislation on insider trading, and authorizing and encouraging police authorities and local magistrates of EU members and future members of the Union to deal directly with US law enforcement authorities.

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