Amazon NHS data gift is a breach of EU state aid rules, says campaigner

PUBLISHED: 16:16 11 December 2019 | UPDATED: 16:16 11 December 2019

Jolyon Maugham has claimed that the government's gift of NHS data to Amazon as part of a partnership with Alexa devices breaches EU state aid rules. Pictures: PA

Jolyon Maugham has claimed that the government's gift of NHS data to Amazon as part of a partnership with Alexa devices breaches EU state aid rules. Pictures: PA

PA

Prominent anti-Brexit campaigner Jolyon Maugham has accused the government of breaching state aid rules by gifting "excessive" access to public NHS data to Amazon.

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He has sent a letter, seen by PA news agency, lodging a formal complaint with the EU Commission which governs the scope of public assets that governments can give away.

Maugham, who was part of the successful case that determined Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully in attempting to prorogue parliament, believes that the tech giant should have paid for access to the data.

He said: "We know from secret recordings that the government lent on the tax authorities to go easy on Amazon.

"It now looks like it is also giving Amazon - worldwide, forever, irrevocably and royalty-free - a licence to all of the NHS's healthcare information.

"Amazon gets a leg up in the hugely valuable healthcare sector. But what's in it for us? Our government should have charged Amazon for the data but it didn't. I'm making this complaint so that the EU Commission forces Amazon to pay up."

EU state aid rules say governments must not give away public assets without approval from the Commission for anything worth more than 200,000 euros (£168,600) over three years. Campaigners claim the value of the NHS information is far higher.

Both Amazon and NHS England say the data is freely available and that no private information on patients has been given away.

George Peretz QC, a barrister at Monckton Chambers in London, specialising in EU, VAT, state aid, competition and customs law, told PA: "The general principle is if the government lets a private company use public assets free of charge - that's state aid.

"Normally, if there are assets that are useful and help the private company make money, the government should charge for it - whether it's land, intellectual property or, in this case, data.

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"You'd expect that if any operator that has a lot of very valuable data - let's say a bank - entered into an arrangement with Amazon to provide it with data, you'd expect Amazon to pay for it."

The deal first came to light after Amazon announced a partnership with the NHS to offer a health service on Alexa voice-controlled home assistants.

However, a redacted copy of the contract was released earlier this month stating Amazon can access information on symptoms, causes and definitions of conditions, and "all related copyrightable content and data and other materials", reports PA.

According to PA the contract also states that Amazon can use the information to sell "new products, applications, cloud-based services and/or distributed software", which can be shared with third parties.

Maugham's complaint says: "The licensing of the data goes far beyond what is necessary to achieve the objective. It is excessive."

NHS England and Amazon say the data is already available for free and used by 1,500 organisations, although the Amazon deal is one of the largest.

An spokesperson for Amazon said: "We are confident that our agreement with NHS is fully in line with UK and EU rules.

"It is a licence to use content from the NHS website, which is already freely accessible to the public.

"We don't have the details of this complaint though we would stress that, Alexa does not have access to any personal or private information from the NHS."

The Department of Health declined to comment when approached by PA.

NHS England said: "No patient data is being provided to this company by the NHS, which takes data privacy extremely seriously and has put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure information is used correctly."

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