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U.S. will allow EU citizens to sue over data privacy

ATHENS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration will push the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to give European Union citizens the right to sue in the United States if they think their private data has been released or misused, the U.S attorney general said on Wednesday.

Allegations of vast U.S. spying programs have complicated EU-U.S. ties at a delicate moment in transatlantic relations as Brussels and Washington negotiate a free-trade pact that would encompass almost half the world's economy.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Greece for a meeting with his EU counterparts, told reporters that the Obama administration is committed to making sure that "EU citizens would have the same right to seek judicial redress" on privacy issues that U.S. citizens would have.

Holder said he would work with Congress on related legislation. No bill has yet been introduced.

The support for the legislation is part of a deal under which European countries are expected to share certain personal data with U.S. authorities for law enforcement purposes, including investigations into foreign fighters in Syria.

The EU and the United States have been negotiating since 2011 over a deal that would protect personal data exchanged between the two as part of efforts to crack down on terrorism. Giving EU citizens who do not live in the United States the right to go to U.S. courts has been a sticking point to closing the personal data protection agreement.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Holder's announcement was "an important step in the right direction," but called on Washington to follow through on its promise.

"Words only matter if put into law. We are waiting for the legislative step," Reding said in a statement.

Since former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed U.S. surveillance programs last year, the European Commission has been highly critical of the way the United States accesses data, and wants to impose strict rules on how data is shared or transferred to countries outside the bloc.

A separate arrangement being renegotiated is the so-called "Safe Harbour" agreement, which allows U.S. companies to gather customer information in Europe and send it to the United States, beyond the EU's legal jurisdiction, as long as certain criteria are met.

"EU-U.S. relations have been strained lately in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations but we have worked very hard to restore trust," EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said at a news conference after the Athens meeting.

(Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti and John O'Donnell in Brussels and Aruna Viswanatha in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams; and Peter Galloway)

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