US, Europeans face throny issue of flow of private data across borders

It can be sent across borders invisibly, which worries some countries that consider it as much a national resource as their labor supply or underground oil reserves.

What is it? A rapidly growing body of information, often in the form of computerized data, on every conceivable subject from company employment records to government survey results which now flows easily over national borders.

Often data from one country is processed in another. Canadian firms, for instance, annually spend millions of dollars to have certain computer information processed and analyzed in the United States. Similarly, the fire department in Malmo, Sweden, which periodically inspects all local buildings in its fire prevention efforts, beams the results to Cleveland for analysis and classification.

At the moment it is as easy to carry information in a briefcase or beam computer data across a border as to a nearby office. But several Western European countries and developing nations have recently begun to wonder aloud in international forums about whether tighter controls on information leaving their countries would better serve their national interest. Some argue that the outflow is costing their citizens precious jobs and threatens their nation's economic independence. A few have suggested an electronic barrier to act as a kind of "information customs house" at the border. Others have suggested that information be licensed by a government regulator and that certain kinds of automated information beamed outside the country be taxed.

The US position -- admittedly in the embryonic stage -- is generally that free exchange of information is most beneficial to everyone. US officials say Washington is concerned that some nations could push for regulations before the problem itself is understood or the ramifications of proprosed solutions clearly seen. They argue that government intervention could hurt rather than help a nation's economic and social development.

"We don't know the full consequences of a free flow of information," admits Arthur Bushkin, a special assistant for information policy with the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, "but we're wary of any move to lay down rules and regulations that could do more harm than good. . . . It's an oversimplification to assert that a nation can't be truly independent if it does not control its own information and information technology."

One encouraging sign is that the industrialized nations of the world see eye to eye on part of the problem. This fall separate agreements were reached on individual privacy rights by members of the Council of Europe (still to be ratified) and of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These agreements recognize certain conditions under which private information (four European countries recognize "private" as including corporations as well as individuals) could be kept within national borders.

In Mr. bushkin's assessment, the agreements amount to "a very significant step forward for human rights."

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