Not too long ago the European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down the 15 year-old Safe Harbor Agreement between the European Union and the United States. The decision didn’t make the headlines because it’s a subject that makes a person’s eyes glaze over. Put simply, the court did what politics couldn’t: it put an end to our country’s willy-nilly use of the internet to spy on European citizens. The court’s decision exposed the United States as a nation that espouses the principle of the free and unimpeded exchange of information on the internet, but plots a course to control that information, routing it through data collection agencies like the NSA. Apparently, having built the internet system, we imagine we can set the rules. Unfortunately, the ECJ thinks otherwise.
Of course the ECJ has no army to support its decision, but it does have jurisdiction over its borders and that fact has multi-international corporations like Google, Microsoft and Facebook wringing their hands. The ruling could result in a blockade of their goods and services. The United States claims the decision is little more than an attempt to levy an economic embargo on American products, but the charge has fallen on deaf ears. The court has taken high moral ground. The Safe Harbor Agreement, it points out, was intended to ensure basic privacy principles while allowing countries do business together — principles which, say the jurists, the United States violates on a daily basis. (“Transatlantic Data War, by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman,” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2015 pg. 130.)
The quarrel over the Safe Harbor Agreement exposes a fundamental difference in the way the EU and the United States view how privacy should work in a digital age. At least, that is the opinion of writers Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman. (Ibid, pg. 129) They note European countries have developed agencies called “data protection authorities.” The job of these authorities is to defend the rights of personal privacy, a right which the authors say has been elevated to “a fundamental constitutional right.”(Ibid pg129.) The United States, in contrast, “lacks a comprehensive approach to privacy. (Ibid pg. 129) Rather, the government is guilty of transforming technology companies into tools of national intelligence.” (Ibid pg 128.)
The ECJ’s action has confronted our nation with a question. Do we want to support globalization and the free flow of goods and information for the public’s welfare? Or, will we choose to sacrifice that benefit for the narrow one of gaining military intelligence? Regrettably, few among our citizenry are aware the question has been raised. The upcoming circus we call an presidential election commands more eyeballs. On the issue of the Safe Harbor Agreement, thanks to the media, most of us are sleeping.