Tighten rules on EC's 'revolving door' with US tech firms, says ombudsman

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The European Union’s ombudsman is keen to tighten regulations on the “revolving door” between European political institutions and private companies, including technology firms.

“It is entirely legitimate for people to move from the public to the private sector, but it is not legitimate if they use their inside information for the benefit of the company that is hiring them,” said Emily O’Reilly at the Web Summit conference in Dublin.

While there are regulations around people leaving jobs at the European Commission and related agencies to work for private companies and the lobbying firms that they hire, O’Reilly wants to improve the current legislation.

“I am not convinced that it is monitored adequately or enforced adequately, and I think really that the rules need to be tightened,” she said.

“I make a business case for it: you wouldn’t let somebody come in off the street and hack your computer, see your files and then walk out. So you can’t let the people in whose brains all that information is stored go out unconditionally.”

At a time when the EU and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) are having more of an impact on large US technology firms – from the recent overturning of safe harbour legislation to the much-discussed right to be forgotten rules – O’Reilly said she understands the desire of tech firms to poach experts from the European bodies.

“Information is key to everything. and if you have the inside information in relation to a particular regulation that is going to have an impact on the bottom line of your company, then obviously you’re going to try to get as much information as you can,” she said.

“Who has the most information? People who are working in the Commission. They’re the ones who are proposing the legislation, they’re the ones who are negotiating with Council and Parliament.”

The Ombudsman office will play a prominent role in the relationship between European bodies and US technology firms like Google and Facebook. Not directly in any investigations involving them, but instead dealing with any complaints about the process of those investigations, and ensuring that process – including the lobbying that goes on around it – is transparent.

“I think in the last few years, the global technology industry and particularly the US technology industry has woken up to the power of the European Union,” said O’Reilly.

She added that this is partly about the opportunity they see in Europe: a market of hundreds of millions of people that is “largely untapped” in terms of its digital economy. “And also because the Commission and the ECJ effectively legislate the industries,” she said.

O’Reilly went on to say that since the ECJ’s ruling on safe harbour “a lot of people are scrabbling around in Europe and the US to put together Safe Harbour Part Two”, but stressed that the priority of the EC remains building a healthy digital single economy for Europe.

“They are pushing on with net neutrality legislation, moving to update the data-protection law which was created in 1995, and they’re also basically trying to steer the European economy and the European tech economy in a manner where it can at least attempt to match the dominance of the US,” she said.

“There’s a big political play as well. Certain politicians in Europe aren’t happy with the fact that Google and some of the American players dominate the European market so much, and part of the reason they do is there is an absence of harmonisation.”

“Jean-Claude Juncker [EC president] has said that the path to European economic success is paved with smartphones and tablets, so they have a very keen sense of the importance of the digital economy, and a very keen sense of how much Europe is lagging behind the US.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd November 2015 12.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010