Commerce Department tries to boost 'safe harbor' adoption

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Commerce thus far has signed up only 12 companies and organizations to support the "safe harbor" data-privacy provisions it negotiated with European officials. But Commerce Department officials yesterday said they hope an upcoming series of explanatory seminars will increase that number and bolster the legitimacy of the safe harbor arrangement.

Representatives from the government and the private sector will take part in the seminars, which are aimed at informing U.S.-based companies about the new provisions and providing advice on how to develop corporate data privacy policies that are necessary in order to be eligible for legal protection from stringent European privacy laws.

Commerce Department officials said at a briefing here that the first seminar is scheduled to take place Jan. 25 in Palo Alto, Calif., with others due to follow next month in New York, Washington and Dallas. The federal agency has also set up a new Web site that provides detailed information about the safe harbor deal along with a form companies can use to certify themselves under the agreement.

The safe harbor provisions went into effect Nov. 1 and are designed to provide privacy-related legal protections to U.S. companies that do business in Europe and gather personal information about employees and customers who live there. Member countries of the European Union adopted privacy laws that go far beyond current U.S. regulations in 1998, leading to two years of negotiations before the safe harbor provisions were finalized.

But adoption of the guidelines by U.S. companies has been slow. The most noteworthy names on the list of 12 organizations that have been certified to date are business and consumer data provider Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and San Jose-based privacy watchdog Truste, which last fall announced that it would offer a seal of approval to companies that promise to adhere to the guidelines.

No major Internet companies or technology vendors have signed up thus far, government officials said yesterday while acknowledging that increased support is necessary for the safe harbor agreement to be successful.

"We need more than 10 or 12 [adherents], and we hope to increase that number," said Michelle O'Neill, deputy assistant secretary for IT at the Commerce Department. "This is a tough agreement to swallow, but we want to get the message out, especially to small businesses." O'Neill wouldn't say how many companies the department wants to sign up.

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