Sensitive personal information risks being left vulnerable to hoarding and misuse by banks, retailers and insurance companies due to three British MEPs accused of directly inserting major firms’ suggestions into EU laws, according to privacy campaigners warning of the most intense lobbying effort ever seen in the European Parliament.
Malcolm Harbour, Giles Chichester and Sajjad Karim are among several Brussels politicians criticised for “copying and pasting” proposals by Amazon, eBay and credit companies in between 22 and 25 per cent of their amendments to a data privacy law described as the most important for decades to come.
Concerns that firms are able to collect vast quantities of sensitive information on what websites people visit and what terms they search for online – potentially affecting job applications, health and credit records, and discriminatory pricing – are driving EU efforts to pass the continent-wide Data Protection Regulation.
This law could see companies fined up to 2 per cent of their global turnover if they misuse personal information, as well as force them to reveal what data they hold on individuals, restrict the way they share it and compel them to get explicit permission first.
But some MEPs became so concerned at attempts by corporations to water down the draft legislation that they leaked examples of lobbying demands they had been sent, exposing how the three Conservative MEPs and their counterparts had inserted passages word-for-word from documents sent to them by major companies.
Anna Fielder, a trustee of campaign group Privacy International, said that lobbying is legitimate but the amendments were”diluting existing rights, making it worse than what we have now”.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “The scale of what they’ve taken from lobby groups – trying to dilute fining rights or dilute rights to get your data back – tells you a lot. These are squarely going to benefit large companies and won’t benefit consumers. Companies know more and more about us, and have more and more power over our daily lives. They can predict our health before we know about it. This is about giving control of our data back.”
Eva Lichtenberger, a German MEP who criticised the corporate influence over the amendments, said she had experienced “aggressive behaviour” from some lobbyists, sending her direct “instructions how to vote” on amending it. “It is an extremely intense lobbying campaign, it must be the most intense,” she said.
Rivals have countered that MEPs leading the privacy campaign have themselves copied suggestions suiting their own agendas. But Ms Lichtenberger said: “It is not balanced. We have hundreds and hundreds of submissions from the industry, but much less from NGOs. You have lots of companies who send us proposals of over a hundred pages because they hate our data protection ideas.”
Marco Maas, who set up the LobbyPlag website comparing legal amendments to corporate suggestions, said some of the lobbyists were playing on MEPs’ heavy workload. “We asked one German MEP who changed a law from good to bad where the wording had come from, and he said he had no idea. They have so many papers to read that they don’t remember.”
Responding to the claims against himself and his colleagues, Mr Harbour, who represents the West Midlands, said: “I consulted extensively… and examined a large number of written submissions. We held many meetings with varying interest groups, including consumer and government representatives and representatives of small and large businesses. All of these meetings will be registered voluntarily. The amendments I tabled were ones that I considered were best able to improve the draft Regulation, especially in terms of data protection, control, and transparency for data subjects.