UN, EU push for greater Internet privacy

General Assembly condemns unlawful surveillance but refrains from calling it a human rights violation

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (C) stands with an official U.S. delegation, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), at the Foreign Ministry Monday in Berlin, Germany.
Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images

The United Nations General Assembly's human rights committee on Tuesday unanimously adopted a resolution sponsored by Brazil and Germany to protect the right to privacy against unlawful surveillance, following months of reports about U.S. eavesdropping abroad.

The symbolic resolution, which seeks to extend personal privacy rights to all people, followed a series of disclosures of U.S. spying on foreign leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which surprised and angered U.S. allies.

Brazil's ambassador to the U.N., Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, said the resolution "establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail respective of the medium, and therefore need to be protected online and offline."

The resolution expresses deep concern at "the negative impact" that such surveillance, "in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights."

German U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig asked, "Is the human right to privacy still protected in our digital world? And should everything that is technologically feasible, be allowed?"

The consensus adoption of the resolution means will it also unanimously pass the 193-member General Assembly in December. GA resolutions aren't legally binding but reflect world opinion and carry political weight.

In a similar move, the European Commission called on Tuesday for new protection for Europeans under U.S. law against misuse of personal data.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said she wanted Washington to follow through on its promise to give all EU citizens the right to sue in the United States if their data is misused. "I have ... made clear that Europe expects to see the necessary legislative change in the U.S. sooner rather than later, and in any case before summer 2014," she said.

"EU citizens do not enjoy the same rights and procedural safeguards as Americans," EU officials wrote when exploring data transfers between the U.S. and European countries.

U.S. lobbying

The U.S. did not fight the U.N. resolution after it met last week with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — members of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing group — to dilute some of the measure's language.

The key compromise dropped the contention that the domestic and international interception and collection of communications and personal data, "in particular massive surveillance," may constitute a human rights violation.

U.S. delegate Elizabeth Cousens told the U.N.'s human rights committee that the U.S. welcomed Brazil and Germany's sponsorship of the resolution and was pleased to support "privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression."

The draft resolution directs the U.N. human rights chief to report to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on the protection and promotion of privacy "in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance ... including on a mass scale."

Last week, five major human rights and privacy groups — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access and Privacy International — said this will guarantee that the privacy issue stays on the front burner at the U.N.

The U.S. has been trying to smooth over tensions with Brazil and Germany over the reported spying.

Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington after classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden showed that the NSA hacked the computer network of Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras and scooped up data on emails and telephone calls flowing through the country.

Merkel and other European leaders expressed anger after reports that the NSA allegedly monitored Merkel's cellphone and swept up millions of French telephone records.

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