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NSA Spying Fast-Tracked Data-Privacy Vote in EU

(CN) - Casting a wary eye on the United States over the admitted worldwide snooping of its intelligence agencies, the European Union revealed Tuesday it has advanced a continentwide data-protection scheme.

The European Parliament announced Tuesday that its committee on civil liberties and justice had just voted on a single, four-pronged data privacy law for all of Europe.

Though the European Commission first proposed such a law in 2012, the legislation took on new urgency after former National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked information about a massive global surveillance operation targeting private citizens and EU government installations.

The committee voted 49 to 1 in favor of the plan, which replaces 28 national rules on data protection with a single EU law. That alone will save companies doing business in Europe more than $3 billion a year, justice commissioner Viviane Reding said in a speech in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

"We see on a daily basis, why we need the data protection reform swiftly," Reding said. "Look at what happened yesterday: the NSA spying on French citizens. The European Union has responded not though a declaration but through action."

The commissioner noted that lawmakers actually enhanced the sanctions proposed by the commission for companies that violate the new law. Regulators had asked for fines of up to 2 percent of annual global revenue, while the EU parliament raised the punishment to 5 percent of worldwide turnover.

And the law will apply to non-European companies as well, Reding said - a statement pointed directly at U.S.-based interests.

"The European market is a goldmine with over 500 million potential customers," Reding said. "Those who want to access it have to play by our rules. This is about fair competition, a principle cherished and promoted on both sides of the Atlantic."

One portion of the scheme likely to cause legal issues is the so-called right to be forgotten, granting consumers the right to control what and how much of their personal data is stored by companies. The EU Court of Justice is currently wrestling with the concept in a dispute between Google and Spain's data-protection agency over potentially libelous news stories that search engines could conceivably retain in perpetuity.

In June, an adviser to the high court suggested that no Onternet user has an absolute right to be forgotten. And Reding admitted that archives of newspapers and the freedom of expression in general should take precedence over the notion of an individual right to erase history.

But parliament's plan "reinforces the right to be forgotten by allowing citizens to obtain from third parties - to whom the data have been passed - the erasure of any links to, or copy or replication of that data," Reding said. "I believe in giving people meaningful rights. Empowerment leads to a return of trust and therefore a 'return on investment.'"

Reding also touted the simplicity of the new law, both for businesses and for EU citizens. She envisions a "one-stop shop" for businesses that currently must negotiate a patchwork of 28 different data-protection requirements in each of the European states. For citizens, they only have to deal with authorities in their own country rather than "get on a plane to Dublin to plead their case," the commissioner said.

The law will also require "privacy by design and default," meaning that data-protection safeguards must be built into products and services at the earliest stages, and privacy-friendly defaults must be the norm, the commission said.

Reding said the bill next heads to the full council of ministers, the EU's second chamber made up of leaders from individual member states.

"This vote is Europe's declaration of independence, a declaration that for Europe and in Europe data protection is not just a concept - it is a fundamental right soon to be backed by a fundamental law," Reding said.

On Monday, France joined a growing list of U.S. allies peeved at allegations that the NSA routinely spies on private citizens. A story in French newspaper Le Monde - based on leaked information provided by Snowden - reported that, during a one-month period last winter, the NSA made 70.3 million recordings of French citizens' telephone calls, purportedly to root out terrorism.

The report prompted the French government to summon U.S. Ambassador Charles Rivkin for answers, while President Barack Obama called French president Francois Hollande personally to do damage control.

The kerfuffle in France comes just days after Mexico learned from German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA had read the emails of former president Felipe Calderon and his cabinet, as well as current president Enrique Pena Nieto's emails before he was elected.

Brazil and Germany canceled state visits and talks after the Snowden leaks revealed high-level NSA snooping in those countries as well.

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