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Alliance rejects U.S. privacy plans

An international coalition lambastes the United States' answer to a strict European Union law that prohibits the transfer of personal data to countries that fail to adequately shield privacy.

An international coalition of 60 consumer groups today lambasted the United States' answer to a strict European Union privacy law that prohibits the transfer of personal data to countries that fail to adequately shield privacy.

The TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) alliance wants EU officials to reject the Clinton administration's proposed safe harbors that would allow firms to continue exchanging data if the companies voluntarily comply with basic industry principles, such as notifying people of their data-collection practices, letting people "opt out" of giving up their personal information, and stating with whom the firm shares the data.

The proposal could be adopted at a summit in June.

Instead of the safe harbors, the TACD is calling for the creation and adoption of an International Convention on Privacy Protection "to address growing public concern about the absence of effective privacy protection in transborder data flows."

The organization, whose members include the Consumer Federation of America and the European Consumers' Organization, contends that people deserve strong legal recourse mechanisms to go after companies that misuse or fail to protect their personal data. The safe harbors also fail to guarantee consumers access to personal information that is collected by a corporation, the group said.

"We do not feel that the safe harbor proposal provides adequate enforcement to safeguard the interests of European citizens. We are also not pleased about the elaborate procedures that consumers will be required to follow to pursue privacy violators," Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers' Organization based in Brussels, said in a statement.

The EU privacy directive has been adopted by seven member countries and is expected to pass muster in the remaining eight. The law will give citizens new control over their personal data and prevent database-marketing firms, Web sites, credit card companies, medical firms, and others from exchanging personal data with countries that do not provide "adequate" protection of the data.

But the Clinton administration favors industry self-regulation combined with "sectoral" laws and doesn't want a blanket privacy law like those in the EU.

Privacy advocates hope the TACD's resolution will influence the current talks between U.S. and EU officials over policy conflicts sparked by the directive.

"It should make a lot of impact because the safe harbor proposal comes down to what happens to personal data, and governments in both the United States and Europe have to be much more sensitive to public interest in this area," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.