Europe Seeks Power to Seize Overseas Data in Challenge to Tech Giants

Cables and computers are seen inside a data centre at an office in the heart of the financial district in London
Cables and computers are seen inside a data centre at an office in the heart of the financial district in London, Britain May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters)

The European Union is preparing legislation to force companies to turn over customers’ personal data when requested even if it is stored on servers outside the bloc, a position that will put Europe at loggerheads with tech giants and privacy campaigners

The EU executive has previously indicated it wanted law enforcement authorities to be able to access electronic evidence stored within the 28-nation bloc. But the scope of the planned legislation will extend to data held elsewhere, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Digital borders are a growing global issue in an era where big companies operate “cloud” networks of giant data centers which mean an individual’s data can reside anywhere.



The EU push comes as a landmark legal battle in the United States nears its climax. The U.S. Supreme Court will this week hear oral arguments in a case pitting Microsoft against U.S. prosecutors, who are trying to force the company to turn over emails stored on its servers in Ireland in connection with a drug-trafficking investigation.

Many law enforcement officials argue such powers are necessary for crime-fighting in the digital age. But campaigners say giving governments so-called extra-territorial authority to reach across borders and access data would erode individuals’ privacy rights.


Technology firms like Microsoft, Apple and IBM say it would undermine consumer trust in cloud services

The planned law, which would apply to all companies around the world that do business in the European Union, is an apparent shift in position for the European Commission, the EU executive, which has stood on the side of privacy advocates in the past.

In 2014, it said in relation to the Microsoft case that “extraterritorial application of foreign laws (and orders to companies based thereon) … may be in breach of international law”.



Asked about the extra-territorial authority rules in the planned law, European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova told Reuters the current method for accessing cross-border evidence was “very slow and non-efficient” and that law enforcement had to be quicker than criminals.



The proposed law would apply to the personal data of people of all nationalities, not just EU citizens, as long as they were linked to a European investigation, one of the sources said.

The legislation is still in the drafting stage and is expected to go before lawmakers and member states at the end of March. It can take up to two years for a law to be finally agreed.


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