The European Parliament yesterday (11 June) slammed the US over the PRISM data leakage scandal and called on the EU's justice commissioner Viviane Reding to challenge US attorney general Eric Holder over the issue when the pair meet in Dublin on Thursday.
Europeans have reacted angrily to revelations that US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American Web giants' reach and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are about to launch transatlantic trade talks.
In a short and stormy debate in Strasbourg, called by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, MEPs of all parties reacted with disappointment to reports that the US National Security Agency had been snooping on EU citizens’ information.
Whistleblower Ed Snowden revealed last week that the NSA has secret wide-reaching authority to snoop on emails and internet communications using a data-mining programme called Prism.
According to documents leaked to the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers, the programme gave US officials access to emails, web chats and other communications from companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.
One rule for US citizens, another for Europeans
US President Obama has defended it as a "modest encroachment" on privacy and reassured US citizens that no one is listening to their phone calls.
But US law puts virtually no eavesdropping restrictions on the communications of foreigners, so US authorities could theoretically access private internet communications of Europeans.
“We need to ensure that similar judicial redress as is afforded to US residents would be offered to European citizens,” Tonio Borg, the commissioner for consumer affairs, told the Parliament during the debate in Strasbourg.
He told MEPs that Reding would raise the issue with Holder on Thursday, and then report back to the legal affairs committee of the Parliament next week (19 June) to outline the progress of her talks.
Not possible to lecture Iraq, Egypt
British MEP Claude Moraes (Socialists & Democrats) said citizens had been “shocked” by a “major breach of trust”.
“500,000,000 Europeans people were shocked to find a foreign country has access to the most intimate details of their private lives,” added Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld (ALDE).
“We cannot be surprised to find the Americans spying on us. We have asked questions again and again but we get no answers from the EU Commission[… ] How can we tell the governments of Iraq and Egypt that they should not spy on their citizens when we are doing the same,” she told the Parliament.
In‘t Veld also condemned the fact that the US offers stronger protection for US citizens than their EU counterparts, a common criticism during the debate.
“It is completely unacceptable that the US has different rules for US citizens on the one hand and those from elsewhere on the other,” said German MEP Manfred Weber (European People's Party).
Remember who the real enemy is
Weber called for internet companies implicated in the allegations and the UK’s ‘secret services’ – also implicated in the scandal – to clarify their positions.
However UK Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope said that it was “too early to draw final conclusions”, criticised the Parliament for “pointing the finger”, and using strong anti American and anti-Commission rhetoric “without pausing to gather facts or proof”.
“It might also be worth some people in this room remembering who the real enemy is, and where it is, and that when we deal with allies, and when we want answers and the truth, that friends listen most when you talk, and not when you shout," Kirkhope added.
In an editorial for Spiegel Online on Tuesday, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said reports the US could access and track virtually all forms of internet communication were "deeply disconcerting" and potentially "dangerous".
"The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is," she said.
"The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the US administration itself is paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table."
The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Peter Hustinx, released a statement yesterday (11 June) saying that he is following the NSA story closely and is concerned about the possible serious implications for the privacy and other fundamental rights of EU citizens.
“We welcome the request by the Chairman of the Article 29 Working Party, Mr. Jacob Kohnstamm, on 7 June to the Commission to seek clarification of the facts as soon as possible. We expect the issue will be discussed at the EU-US Summit this Friday (14 June),” the statement added.
- 13 June: Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding to raise PRISM scandal with US attorney-general Eric Holder during meeting in Dublin