Germany softens stance on EU data-protection reform

BRUSSELS Thu Jul 26, 2012 5:25pm BST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Germany is prepared to cede some of its strict control over access to public information to meet new EU data protection laws, diplomats said on Thursday, a concession that should allow the proposals to come into force in 2013.

Differences between EU member states over the balance between privacy and transparency have been a stumbling block to adopting new EU-wide standards, with states like Germany aiming to maximise privacy and northern European states such as Finland and Sweden seeking as much openness as possible.

The European Commission, which proposed the rules in January, sees harmonising data protection standards as critical to safeguarding technological innovation in Europe. It estimates that a slimmed-down and simplified set of rules could save business up to 2.3 billion euros (1.7 billion pounds) a year.

As well as more straightforward data rules, the Commission wants to see the creation of a board to resolve disputes between companies and countries. The proposals need the backing of all 27 EU member states and the European Parliament before they can become law.

"This is exactly what we have put on the table: one single rule for the entire continent," said Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice and rights, adding that she had seen evidence of Germany shifting its position.

"Awareness has been growing that we do need data protection rules also for the public sector."

Germany's concerns have focused on limiting access to public information such as tax and employment records and it had sought a complete exemption for its public sector.

But at a meeting of EU ministers in Cyprus this week, Germany removed some of its objections to a one-rule solution in exchange for flexibility in how to apply the rules - opening the way for a compromise that all states can live with.

"As far as certain member states do already have a stricter regulation for certain areas of the public sphere, the new legislation should also give member states the possibility to preserve these differentiated levels of data protection," the diplomat said.

For its part, Sweden and other states secured an agreement that the Commission, the EU's executive, can adapt the rules as technology and attitudes towards data protection change.

"For us it's important that we have legislation that is of course detailed enough to give protection to citizens, but that is also applicable for a longer period of time," a Swedish EU diplomat said.

STILL DIFFICULT

While the meeting in Cyprus made progress in finding agreement among member states over the rules, there remain differences in individual countries over what constitutes public interest and therefore what data is protected.

In a country such as Germany, citizens can opt out of having their data collected by a company. That can make it difficult for multinational firms that offer services such as cloud computing.

Countries such as Sweden that favour greater openness worry that granting user opt-outs could impede transparency and access to information sought by journalists or the public.

For example, anyone can visit Sweden's tax authority and ask to see an individual's return, a transparency that has allowed companies to provide online access to the data for a fee. Such openness is unthinkable in many other EU countries.

Anders Johansson, the chief executive of Ratsit AB, a Swedish company that provides tax data, said making such information accessible was the mark of a fair society.

"The whole idea for public information is that it's going to be public," he told Reuters.

(Reporting By Ethan Bilby)