Financial Times letter published on 25 March 2014

From Mr John Higgins and Mr Dean C Garfield.

Sir, With the threat of conflict on Europe’s eastern borders, it is more important than ever for the European Union and the US to show unity. The transatlantic relationship represents the most important trade partnership in the world. Efforts to strengthen this relationship through an ambitious trade and investment agreement are more important than ever. We urge leaders meeting in Brussels this week to address the key challenges that stand in the way of an agreement. Most notably, the issue of international data flows.

Recent revelations about government surveillance practices on both sides of the Atlantic have dented citizens’ and governments’ confidence in the safe, protected flow of data. At its most extreme, this discussion has led to calls in some countries for the localisation of data – or in other words building walls around the internet on a regional level to restrict data flows. This would be a huge mistake. It threatens to isolate countries, or even entire regions from the global digital economy. Talk of forced localisation of data is being heard in countries as far apart as Brazil and Indonesia.

We must not be naive about this. Data protection is only part of the reason why some are calling for data restrictions. Some countries want data kept locally because they think it is good for local business.

There is a real risk that by restricting data flows we will open up an era of economic protectionism that would have a harmful impact on global economic growth. The EU and the US must send a clear message in support of international data flows as they negotiate their bilateral trade agreement. Not only is it crucial for transatlantic trade and the two partner economies that are directly involved; it will also send a message to other trading partners around the world about how vital the free movement of data is to all economic activity.

In addition to the TTIP talks, it is important to reach a prompt and clear conclusion to the review of the safe harbour agreement. Transatlantic trade in many important industry sectors cannot work without it.

Concerns about government surveillance have undermined people’s confidence in how their personal data is handled on the internet. To restore that trust the EU and US both need to clarify under what circumstances and how their governments should be able to access people’s personal data. They also need to demonstrate that they respect each other’s privacy rules. Without the trust of citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, our economies will not be able to take full advantage of technologies such as cloud computing and data analytics, which are becoming key drivers for our economies. As Neelie Kroes, the EU digital commissioner, recently said: “ ‘No’ to data protectionism; ‘Yes’ to data protection.” This week’s EU-US summit is an excellent opportunity to promote this principle at the highest level.

John Higgins, Director General, Digitaleurope, Brussels, Belgium

Dean C Garfield, President and CEO, Information Technology Industry Council, Washington, DC, US

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