By Matteo Quattrocchi,Programs and Exchange Assistant at the U.S. Mission to the EU
A colleague here at United States Mission to the European Union (USEU) once described the annual Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference, (CPDP) as “the funkiest conference in Brussels.” While I first laughed at that description, after my first CPDP experience this year I’ve come to agree. In a sea of “Brussels Bubble” conferences too often characterized by grey suits and bland policy statements, CPDP, held this year from January 27-29, offers a refreshing mix of points of view on diverse topics. CPDP has steadily grown into the main European venue for discussions among civil society activists, policymakers, academics, and business on the critical issues of privacy and data protection—and American voices are an important part of those discussions.
Data privacy has been a contentious issue in the transatlantic relationship between the U.S. and the European Union (EU) recently. CPDP provides a perfect platform for Europeans and Americans to engage in discussions on complex issues-both from the government and non-governmental perspectives. For the past several years, USEU has provided funds for CPDP to invite American experts from academia and civil society discussing topics as distinct as the NSA revelations, revenge porn, and LGBT rights. While many of these experts may not agree with U.S. policy, they do represent the diversity of viewpoints that exist in the United States on the topic of privacy, similar to the diversity of perspectives in Europe. Healthy debate and exchange of ideas are at the cornerstone of American society, just as they are in Europe. This is especially the case on controversial issues such as privacy, surveillance and data protection. The balance between national security and individual privacy is constantly moving, similar to a pendulum swinging back and forth. Depending on the specific time in history, society will demand more privacy at the expense of surveillance capabilities, or more security at the expense of privacy. As the design and enactment of policy seems to be far removed from the public, it is exactly on these issues that there needs to be a public and global discussion.
This year, in addition to USEU’s general support for CPDP, an unprecedented number of U.S. officials took part in discussions throughout the conference. USEU even took a unique step, for the first time organizing a panel that brought together American and European experts on Intelligence Law reform from government and civil society. U.S. officials from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Commerce (DOC), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) all participated in discussions throughout CPDP’s three days. Those who got to experience these debates first hand, as I did, or who followed the social media discussion virtually, can attest to the intensity of the questions from panelists and audience alike. These were not occasions for bland talking points-this was real transatlantic debate between diverse point of views; a true exchange among government, civil society, activists, and the private sector.
The negotiations for a revised approach to Safe Harbor – a process for U.S. companies to comply with the EU Directive on the protection of personal data, which the EU Court of Justice ruled that the principle was invalid in October 2015 (Schrems Decision) – were still ongoing during CPDP, and several of the key U.S. negotiators from the Department of Commerce and ODNI themselves took part in panels discussing Safe Harbor and the Schrems decision. This allowed for a rarely available interaction with data protection authorities and activists, going beyond government-to-government discussions. Even in the world of new technologies, of digital connections and social media, in-person meetings and old-styled panel discussions can still provide a fundamental contribution to the public debate. Just days after CPDP closed, the U.S. and EU reached a deal to amend the Safe Harbor in what will now be known as “Privacy Shield.”
Statement from U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on EU-U.S. Privacy Shield
Related: Fact Sheet on EU-U.S. Privacy Shield
Why does USEU continue to support CPDP and ensure top-level officials participate? Even with the Privacy Shield in place, transatlantic exchanges including a variety of government and non-government actors will be necessary to build citizen and consumer trust in the ability of companies and governments to protect their data. Inclusiveness and diversity of ideas continue to constitute a fundamental part of policy-making on both sides of the Atlantic. And besides, where but at the funkiest conference in Brussels can you get a prescription for invisibility pills to safeguard your privacy?