It had escaped my notice that the US Department of Commerce and the Federal Data Protection and Information Commission of Switzerland had established a US – Swiss Safe Harbor Framework. The provisions and procedures are identical to those which apply to data transfers between the EU and the US.
Switzerland understood the commercial, as well as the personal, value of privacy whilst those countries which now make up the European Union were still in that state of near-permanent war which governed their relations for centuries. That war has now been converted into the back-stabbings, media briefings and backstairs jockeying for power which go on in Brussels and Strasbourg, from which Switzerland has stayed aloof.
People outside the EU tend to view it as a single bloc corresponding with its political and geographical boundaries. Whilst that is largely true in global trading terms, the neat picture is muddled by specific national distinctions – each EU country has its own privacy and data protection laws, for example – and is entirely misleading in cultural terms. The picture is confused still further by the fact that Switzerland, sitting bang in the middle of the EU landmass, is not a member of the EU.
Like everyone else, however, it must trade with America – the idea, inserted by Orson Welles as a space filler into The Third Man, that 500 years of Swiss peace and democracy had produced only cuckoo clocks, was quite wrong; Switzerland exported US$14.8 billion worth of merchandise to the United States in 2007 (a trade deficit of US$3.2 billion), and cuckoo clocks came from Germany anyway. It is unlikely that it would have had the clout to negotiate the Safe Harbor framework for itelf alone, but it makes sense to ride on the EU’s coat-tails now that the framework exists. The US – Swiss Safe Harbor amounts to just that.
Give or take a minor spelling difference, the expression “safe harbor” is an admirably pithy way of conveying the concept which it embraces in continents with long sea-boards and maritime traditions; troubled seas and coming safely home are part of the written tradition from the sacred (“those in peril on the sea”) to the profane (“any port in a storm” as Fanny Hill said to the eager but navigationally-challenged gentleman). It probably does not work quite so well in Switzerland, whose experience of stormy weather on water comes from listening to the first half of the William Tell Overture.
There are, of course, plenty of arguments as to whether this harbour is safe at all. It is, however, at least a partial answer, and it makes sense for Switzerland to take advantage of the framework established between the US and EU.