CES 2016: Ramirez—Safe Harbor Uncertainty Is Untenable

FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez says that the current climate of uncertainty surrounding cross-border privacy protections is untenable and not good for either businesses or privacy.

Ramirez was being interviewed by Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro at the CES show in Las Vegas Wednesday.

She was referring to a European Union decision invalidating the "safe harbor" agreement between the U.S. and E.U. on the U.S.’s handling of personal information from E.U. members. The decision followed leaks by Edward Snowden about mass surveillance and the E.U.’s conclusion that meant the U.S. could not uphold its end of the safe harbor agreement.

Ramirez called the harbor an effective tool — the FTC enforces the harbor and the Commerce Department administers it.

She said that for two years the FTC and commerce have been working to strengthen the framework, including discussions with the European Commission. She said those efforts have ramped up following the October decision.

She said she was optimistic a solution would be found and hoped that solution could come by the end of this month, but added that at any rate they were "well on their way."

Shapiro said there were two views of the decision to ax the harbor. One was that the E.U. had a broader protection of privacy and was concerned about the Snowden revelations, and that the other was that it was "just a fig leaf to go after American companies because Europe has very few if any innovative companies that are significant in the Internet space."

Ramirez said the U.S. cares about privacy, but conceded it approached privacy differently with a more flexible approach. She said the FTC tried to balance innovation with concerns about privacy, but that ultimately the U.S. and Europe share privacy goals.

Shapiro pressed the point, saying that Europe was going after U.S. companies — Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, Google, with privacy and antitrust claims and that "it just doesn't seem motivated by anything but envy or jealousy."

She said there was a lot of rhetoric on the European side, but that the FTC was working closely with the European Commission.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.