* Lawmakers warn could block trade deal unless Brussels acts
* Vote stems from investigation into Snowden spy allegations
* Data protection big issue going into European elections
By John O'Donnell
BRUSSELS, March 12 European lawmakers put
pressure on EU countries on Wednesday to shield citizens'
privacy, warning that they could block a trade deal with the
United States if governments did not take a tougher stance on
Concluding its own investigation into leaks from former U.S.
data analyst Edward Snowden over government spying, an
overwhelming majority of lawmakers voted in favour of a
resolution warning that the world's biggest trade deal "could be
endangered" unless EU countries stopped such surveillance.
While the snooping vote was only a symbolic warning shot,
both the European Parliament and U.S. Congress must sign off the
U.S.-EU free trade deal for it to become law, meaning their
threats carry some weight.
"It's not enough to point the finger at the United States.
European states were also involved," Jan Philipp Albrecht, a
German lawmaker, told Reuters, referring to the alleged
involvement of British and other intelligence services in
"The member states must put into place laws that place
limits on the surveillance by intelligence agencies. We need
rules on how they exchange information."
Tension over the issue has been building after
parliamentarians criticised European leaders for what they said
was a limp response to allegations of U.S. spying.
Late last year, the European Union backed down on threats to
suspend agreements granting the United States access to European
data following leaks that Washington had spied on European
citizens and EU institutions.
The tough stance of the parliament is unlikely to soften
ahead of European elections in May, a vote set to bolster the
number of lawmakers with a more populist political agenda.
The parliament also voted to back new privacy rules, another
symbolic move, this time to renew pressure on EU governments to
finalise the first revision to Europe's data laws since 1995.
This regulation will establish a single law for data
protection across the 28 countries in the European Union,
replacing the current patchwork of national rules. It may still,
however, be changed by countries before entering law.
"In a world where big data is increasingly combined with big
government, the European Parliament is leading the fight to
ensure that people regain sovereignty over their privacy," said
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament.
In its legislative proposal unveiled in early 2012, the
European Commission suggested sanctions of up to 2 percent of
global turnover on companies that break data protection rules,
and said consumers should have the "right to be forgotten" -
erasing their digital traces from the Internet.
The parliament wants to increase the fine to 5 percent of
annual worldwide turnover.
Parliament, in line with the Commission's proposals, also
wants to impose strict rules on how data is shared or
transferred to countries outside the European Union.
For example, if the United States wants access to
information held by Google or Yahoo! about a European citizen in
Europe, the firm would have to seek authorisation from a
European data authority first.
Facebook, Google and other Internet-based firms, the vast
majority of them American, have lobbied against the Commission's
proposal, concerned it will lumber them with extra costs.
"Strong data protection rules must be Europe's trademark,"
said Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner.
"Following the U.S. data spying scandals, data protection is
more than ever a competitive advantage. Today's vote is the
strongest signal that it is time to deliver."