This post was written by Nick Tyler. 

The European Commission today completed its task of reforming the EU Data Protection Directive by sending a draft Regulation to the European Parliament. The draft Regulation contains comprehensive reforms and seeks to harmonise data protection laws across the 27 EU Member States, and to enhance EU citizens’ privacy protections in the age of the Internet.

There will be two tiers of compliance obligations and sanctions, with one aimed at small- to medium-sized enterprises and the other at large, multinational organizations. SMEs are entitled to certain exemptions to ease administrative burdens, such as no requirement to appoint a data protection officer and a sanctions cap of up to €1 million. Multinationals with more than 250 employees in the EU will have to appoint a data protection officer and may face sanctions of up to 2 percent of worldwide annual turnover for serious breaches. Multinationals outside the EU will also have to comply with the data protection rules if they seek to market products and services to the EU citizens.

Key provisions include:

A single notification to the data protection authority in the country where an organization has its principle establishment. There remains an obligation to notify and seek prior authorization for a range of processing activity considered to present specific risks, such as systematic and extensive profiling and large-scale video surveillance.

Accountability principle for those processing personal data, including impact assessments for SMEs and top-down accountability for all organisations.

Data breach notification to the national data protection authority if feasible within 24 hours, and to individuals if there is a risk of harm.

Increased individual control over their data includes seeking their explicit consent before data may be processed rather than it being assumed, and their ability to refer matters to the data protection authority in their country even if data is processed by a company based outside the EU.

Data Portability will mean that individuals will have easier access to their own data and be able to transfer it from one service provider to another more easily.

A right to be forgotten allows individuals, including children, the ability to delete their data if an organization does not have any legitimate grounds for retaining it. The right provides exemptions for legitimate historic data such as newspaper archives, and seeks to balance the right to privacy with the right to free speech.

The sanction regime has at least been watered down from the draft Regulation circulated in November 2011, which had proposed sanctions of up to 5 percent of worldwide annual turnover.

There have been some ‘business-friendly’ changes to the draft Regulation as compared with the earlier November draft. The proposal for an opt-in for commercial marketing has been substituted with an opt-out, and the provisions relating to children’s privacy now requires parental consent for under the age of 13, rather than 18.

In addition, while there is an emphasis on binding corporate rules for international data transfers outside of the EU, contractual clauses, EU standard contracts, and findings of adequacy, as well as international commitments by countries or international organizations such as U.S. Safe Harbor, will still apply. Given the changes contemplated under the draft Regulation, existing international data transfer mechanisms may need to be reviewed and amended if the draft Regulation is adopted.

The new European Data Protection Board will no longer act as a supernational regulator in relation to approving enforcement actions and sanctions as proposed in the November version of the draft Regulation. Instead, its powers will be limited to ensuring consistent application of the Regulation without the power to overrule decisions in individual cases.

The Commission’s proposed draft Regulation and accompanying Directive now goes to the European Parliament and EU Member States (meeting in the Council of Ministers) for discussion. The Regulation will only take effect two years after adoption by the European Parliament, and we would expect further changes as it makes its way through the legislative process. That means any changes are probably close to three years down the road.