Protect journalists from Trade Secrets Directive, French MPs say

Green MEPs wore masks representing whistleblower Edward Snowden in the European Parliament, March 12, 2014. [greensefa/Flickr]

French MPs have called on the European institutions to rework the Trade Secrets bill, which they say hampers the freedom of information and puts journalists’ sources at risk. EURACTIV France reports

The Trade Secrets Directive, first proposed by the European Commission in 2013, aims to provide a harmonised framework for the protection of trade secrets in Europe.

Currently under review by the European Parliament, the bill’s opponents claim that it undermines freedom of information laws by allowing businesses to prosecute journalists or whistle-blowers who reveal confidential information. French MPs voiced their opposition to the proposed directive in a vote on Tuesday (9 June).

Journalistic exemption

Members of the French National Assembly adopted a resolution submitted by the Socialist MP Audrey Linkenheld, demanding that the EU uphold its commitments to the freedom of information by exempting journalists from the new rules.

“We propose the complete exclusion of journalists from the directive,” said Audrey Linkenheld. “Whistle-blowers should also benefit from some form of exemption, though not the complete immunity of journalists, as their status is not defined,” she added.

>> Read: Uproar over protection of trade secrets

Adopted by the French Parliament’s European Affairs Committee on 9 June, the binding resolution must now be passed on to the European Parliament, whose Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) will vote on the first draft of the bill on 16 June.

“I did not encounter any major opposition to these proposals, whether from the European Commission or the business sector in Brussels,” Audrey Linkenheld said. But the exemption of journalists from the directive is by no means guaranteed.

Public opposition

This is not the first time the National Assembly’s first rejection of trade secrets legislation.

An amendment submitted to Emmanuel Macron’s Economic Growth and Activity Bill in January, which advocated the prosecution of people who divulge trade secrets, was hastily withdrawn after it sparked outcry from journalists, civil society and politicians.

A petition launched by Elise Lucet has reopened the debate. In its introductory text, the petition, which has collected over 150,000 signatures in a matter of days, states that “with the directive “Trade Secrets” you would never had heard about the financial scandal Luxleaks, pesticides from Monsanto, or the Gardasil scandal … And many more”.

Elise Lucet addressed the text directly to the members of the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee (JURI), ahead of their vote next week.

Protecting SMEs

According to the Commission, the directive is urgently needed to protect European SMEs, which regularly suffer from industrial espionage.

Figures from the EU executive show that one in four European companies fell victim to at least one case of information theft in 2013, up from 18% in 2012.

The European bill defines trade secrets as techniques (manufacturing processes, chemical compounds, etc.) or commercial information (client lists, results of marketing studies, etc.) with economic value to a company. These are often of vital importance to innovative companies and SMEs.

In November 2013, the European Commission proposed a directive giving a common definition of what constitutes a business secret. This directive also provides the framework for victims of business secret theft to claim reparations.

The theft of business secrets is an increasingly widespread problem in the EU. In 2013, one in four European companies was the victim of at least one case of information theft (compared to 18% in 2012).

SMEs and start-ups tend to depend more heavily on confidentiality than large businesses, as do companies that deal in knowledge capital (expertise, R&D and creative products).

Differences in national legislation and the absence of a European definition of business secrets means levels of protection vary considerably from one EU member state to another.

  • 16 June: JURI Committee vote on Trade Secrets Directive

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