Euro lawmakers discuss Net issues with Congress

A group of European Parliament members are in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss with U.S. regulators and lawmakers areas where the governments can come closer together on matters of Internet policy.

On Monday the European group met with several U.S. agencies here including the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Department of Commerce, and U.S. Department of Justice, as well as Vice President Richard Cheney. The group’s goal is to promote trans-Atlantic communication on key Internet issues such as privacy, security and intellectual property, said Arlene McCarthy, a European Parliament member from the U.K.

“The purpose of this visit is to have a debate,” McCarthy said. Expectations are not that the two approaches to Internet policy will become identical, but that they can be compatible enough to help facilitate global commerce and enforcement. “The issue is not harmony, but outcome,” McCarthy said.

On Tuesday afternoon, congressmen and members of the IT industry joined the group for panel discussions on privacy and security, sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to promote Internet education and tackle various issues.

While U.S. lawmakers said their views differ from those of many Europeans on matters such as data privacy, they expressed an interest in working with their European counterparts. “For the last several years we’ve been building closer ties with the European Parliament,” said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia and co-chair of the caucus. “Our differences of opinion on privacy led to efforts to bridge that gap.”

“The Internet is (one of the) only areas where good cooperation exists” among the many commerce issues that the two governments must work on together, said Erika Mann, a European Parliament member from Germany.

Nonetheless, there are a number of areas where the two governments’ Internet policies diverge, as Europe in general takes a more regulatory approach while the U.S. favours market forces. For example, legislation has already passed in Europe that strictly limits how spam and Internet contact directories are used.

Under European Union law, spam must almost always be an “opt-in” option, meaning a consumer must give expressed consent to receive it, said Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, a European Parliament member from the Netherlands. Internet-based directories that list names and contact numbers must receive approval from consumers before including them, she added.

One point that representatives from both governments agreed on is the need to heighten information security without trampling on consumers’ privacy rights.

“I think there is a sense of understanding that clearly we need balance … to work together and find the right balance between security and privacy,” Mann said.

The group will reconvene on Wednesday to discuss intellectual property and broadband issues.