EU to Press U.S. Over Facebook Data Use

BRUSSELS—The European Union’s top justice official is set to quiz her U.S. counterparts over privacy issues on a visit to Washington this week made more timely by fallout over Facebook Inc.’s FB -6.77% handling of personal data.

The planned U.S. visit by EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová comes after Facebook announced that a data-analysis firm with ties to the 2016 Trump campaign wrongfully held users’ personal data for years despite saying it had deleted those records.

The news sent the social-media firm’s shares tumbling on Monday and sparked outcry by European officials, including Ms. Jourová and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who pledged a full parliamentary investigation.

Ms. Jourová said she would discuss the developments in meetings planned with U.S. officials, which include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Her team has also requested a meeting with the Federal Trade Commission.

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The EU justice chief plans to question officials about the consent decree Facebook signed as part of a 2011 settlement with the FTC over concerns revolving around the social-media company’s privacy policies, according to an EU official. Under the settlement, Facebook pledged to obtain users’ explicit consent before their information could be shared. Ms. Jourová will ask her counterparts whether the FTC is planning any enforcement action related to the matter, according to the EU official.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company “rejects any suggestion that it violated the consent decree. We respected the privacy settings that people had in place.”

Ms. Jourová’s team has also been in touch with Facebook to organize a meeting while she is in the country.

Facebook has said it is “moving aggressively” to investigate whether the data in question still exists despite assurances by Cambridge Analytica they were destroyed. At issue is whether Cambridge used personal data without authorization to build a system to target individual U.S. voters with political advertisements.

Cambridge Analytica was a top vendor to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and has come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. Mr. Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign with the Russians, and Moscow has denied meddling in the election.


“From a European Union perspective, the misuse for political purposes of personal data belonging to Facebook users—if confirmed—is not acceptable,” said a spokesman for Ms. Jourová’s department in the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. “In the EU, data protection is a fundamental right. We have strong data protection rules to protect this fundamental right.”

Europe’s national data-protection authorities are gathering in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the Cambridge case. Ms. Jourová is encouraging the authorities to establish a task force to investigate the issue, according to another EU official. The U.K.’s data-protection authority has said it is pursuing an investigation into the matter.

The topics of discussion on Ms. Jourová’s U.S. visit highlight the clash over privacy matters between Washington and Brussels, where data protection rules are generally stricter. European data rules are set to become even stricter when new rules come into force in May. The change is part of the EU’s effort to clamp down on what officials see as lax online-privacy protection, particularly by U.S. tech giants.

In an interview, Ms. Jourová said she will also urge U.S. officials to fulfill pledges made as part of a trans-Atlantic data-transfer pact that protects Europeans’ information when it is stored on U.S.-based servers.

Strict privacy laws in the EU allow companies to store personal information about Europeans on American soil only if the companies commit to guaranteeing European levels of privacy protection.

One of the main legal mechanisms to do so, agreed between the U.S. and EU in 2016 and used by thousands of firms, is underpinned legally by written assurances and a presidential directive enacted under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

One of the central elements of that agreement, the U.S. appointment of a high-ranking official to field and investigate European complaints about U.S. handling of data, hasn’t been implemented.

“I come with a clear message: We are very impatient already and we want to see the fully fledged ombudsperson doing the job which was promised,” said Ms. Jourová in the interview.

Ms. Jourová said she would remind Mr. Ross that the EU could suspend the agreement. She said she would also remind him of an impending deadline set by Europe’s national privacy regulators to put in place an ombudsperson by May.

The EU justice chief is also seeking an agreement with Washington to allow European law-enforcement authorities quicker access to electronic evidence stored on U.S.-based servers.

The effort comes as the EU finalizes new legislative proposals to be announced in April that could set the legal foundation for such a trans-Atlantic arrangement.

Write to Natalia Drozdiak at natalia.drozdiak@wsj.com

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