Transatlantic Conference Releases New Trade Priorities
Washington, D.C. -- Leading consumer organisations from both sides of the Atlantic have called for government agencies to halt the Time Warner-AOL merger until grave concerns about consumer privacy are addressed.
That warning came at a meeting of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), held 10-12 February in Washington, DC. The dialogue brought together more than 60 consumer leaders from 16 countries and government officials from both the European Union and the United States.
Consumer advocates fear that the merger gives the company more far-reaching - and frighteningly more sophisticated - ability to collect information about consumer shopping and browsing habits that will be used in new ways to sell them products.
"The new world of the Internet has great potential for benefits for both consumers and businesses, but governments must think very carefully before allowing mega mergers that pose very real threats to consumer privacy," said Ed Mierzwinski of US Public Interest Research Group, and a member of the TACD steering committee. "If this cross-industry merger doesn't terrify people concerned about privacy, it should."
That was one of numerous recommendations - covering electronic commerce, food safety and standards and trade - to emerge from the meeting, the third one to be held since the TACD was formed in September 1998. The TACD was created to have input into the EU and US trade dialogue and counterbalance the Transatlantic Business Dialogue.
Consumer organisations were pleased the dialogue resulted in a better understanding (more) with governments and applauded government progress in areas such as access to essential medicines in developing countries, eco-labelling and fair trade labelling, and regulatory cooperation.
"We had very productive and meaningful discussions," said Rhoda Karpatkin, member of the TACD steering committee and president of the US Consumers' Union. "Although we still have a long way to go to reach agreement in many areas, there appears now to be a clear willingness on the part of government to listen to consumer concerns."
Nonetheless, the TACD reiterated its strong opposition to US-backed so-called "Safe Harbour" provision that would let US firms evade strong privacy laws granting European citizens control over the use of their personal information by businesses. In December, TACD member groups issued a statement to the governments detailing the numerous ways that the safe harbour's provisions allowing firms to self-certify their privacy practices fail to meet European standards protecting consumers. US officials recently announced their intent to complete approval of the Safe Harbour by the end of March. Negotiations have been continuing for nearly two years.
"We want an agreement that will respect the privacy rights of European consumers when their personal data is transferred to the US," said Jim Murray, the TACD EU chair and director of BEUC, the European consumers union. "Not a pirate's cove disguised as a safe harbour."
The TACD also recommended that:
The EU and US governments must improve regulation of food labelling to ensure misleading claims stopped in one region of the world cannot be made by the same company, or a subsidiary, in another region of the world.
Both governments should require that all genetically modified foods be carefully assessed before their commercial introduction and release into the environment and monitored and assessed after their release. Long-term monitoring of the use of GM foods should be a legal requirement. All genetically modified food also must be labelled.
The EU and US governments must adopt the precautionary principle - the commonsense view that it is better to be safe than sorry - in the area of food and trade. The TACD applauded the adoption of such a principle at the Montreal Biosafety Protocol in the area of genetically modified foods, but says it must be incorporated more broadly in the international standards setting process. The TACD noted that if the precautionary principle had been systematically applied, it might have prevented some of the recent and deadly food safety crises in Europe.