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US Sees New EU Data-sharing Pact Within Reach

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, 2. from right, visits The Factory, a campus for 'Startup' companies during her Berlin visit, Oct. 28, 2015.

A new transatlantic data-sharing agreement is within reach after the "Safe Harbor" deal used by thousands of companies to comply with EU privacy law was struck down by the highest EU court this month, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said.

The so-called "Safe Harbor 2.0" agreement currently being negotiated would meet European concerns about the transfer of data to the United States, Pritzker told journalists in Frankfurt on Thursday during a visit to Germany.

"A solution is within hand. We had an agreement prior to the court case. I think with modest refinements that are being negotiated we could have an agreement shortly," she said. "The solution ... is Safe Harbor 2.0, which is totally doable."

Safe Harbour was a fast-track process that U.S. companies could use to comply with European data protection law, which prevents EU citizens' personal data being transferred to non-EU countries deemed to have insufficient privacy safeguards.

Many companies, both U.S. and European, have used it for 15 years to help them get around cumbersome checks to transfer data between offices on either side of the Atlantic.

That includes payroll and human resources information as well as lucrative data used for online advertising, which is of particular importance to tech companies such as IBM and Google.

But its validity was thrown into question two years ago when former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of mass U.S. government surveillance programs, and talks have been ongoing to reform it since then.

After the court ruling, regulators said companies could face action from European privacy regulators if the European Commission and United States did not come up with a new system in three months.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova told a parliamentary committee this week that she hoped to have made progress on "intensive technical discussions" with her U.S. counterparts before a visit to Washington DC in mid-November.

Pritzker was more bullish. "I hope then that means we're done and we have resolved this problem because it is costing a lot of money predominantly to... small and medium-sized businesses that depend on Safe Harbour," she said.