NVOCCS, CARRIERS BATTLE ON SHIPPER CONFIDENTIALITY ISSUE
Non-vessel-operating common carriers and vessel-operating carriers have sent diametrically opposed replies to U.S. Customs on its proposed rule covering the confidentiality of shipper and importer data contained in cargo manifests.
Once U.S. Customs has adopted a final ruling, this will largely determine how much detailed trade and shipper/consignee data will remain in the public domain, and will still be available for purchase from commercial data reporting services.
On Jan. 9, U.S Customs said in a notice (RIN 1515-AD18) that it was considering a proposed rule so that, in addition to the importer or consignee, NVOCCs, carriers and other parties that electronically transmit vessel cargo manifest information directly to Customs may request confidentiality with respect to “the name and address of the importer or consignee, related marks and identification numbers that reveal their names and addresses, and the names and addresses of their shippers.”
Current Customs regulations allow only the importer or consignee, or an authorized employee, attorney, or official of the importer or consignee, to make such requests for confidentiality. Only a minority of shippers exercise this right.
But the issue has gained increased importance since the introduction of U.S. Customs' 24-hour advance manifest rule, which requires disclosure of the actual shipper, consignee and cargo description. In the past, NVOCCs were often listed as the shipper and consignee, and were able to describe the cargoes in vague terms like “Freight All Kinds.”
The National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America Inc., which represents NVOCCs, and the World Shipping Council, which represents ocean carriers, have filed strongly worded comments with U.S. Customs on their views about the proposed extension of the protection of shipper and consignee confidentiality. While the U.S. National Industrial Transportation League has not filed formal comments, it has made it known that it favors confidentiality.
In addition to requiring carriers to submit certain shipment specific data to Customs at least 24 hours before cargo is loaded aboard a vessel at foreign ports, the recent 24-hour rule “made two significant changes in the way this information is treated,” the NCBFAA told Customs. It permits NVOCCs to electronically transmit the required cargo manifest information directly to Customs through the vessel automated manifest system. And it makes “the detailed information contained on NVOCC house bills of lading … available, for the first time, for public review and disclosure.”
The NCBFAA urged Customs to implement the proposed rule to allow NVOCCs who file shipment data through AMS to request the confidentiality of information on shippers and consignees.
The NCBFAA said NVOCCs and their customers are concerned that terrorists and thieves will be aided by having access to shipping patterns. While Customs said inbound cargo manifest information is not made available to the public until the complete manifest is filed at the time of formal entry of vessels into the United States (meaning only once the ship has arrived), the NCBFAA said this “does not sufficiently allay concerns.”
“Moreover, many NVOCCs have expressed serious reservations about potential unfair trade practices of the steamship lines that could be another unintended consequence of the (24-hour manifest) rule,” the NCBFAA said. NVOCCs fear ocean carriers will go after their customers.
Today, U.S. importers and consignees can protect the identity of the shipper and consignee, by making confidentiality requests to Customs every six months.
If the proposed rule allowing NVOCCs to request confidentiality on behalf of shippers is allowed, “this only modestly expands the universe of parties who can make the confidentiality designations,” because Customs brokers possessing a power of attorney to act on behalf of the U.S. importers already have the ability to make such designations, the NCBFAA said. The association of intermediaries asked Customs to extend the scope of the proposed rule, so that NVOCCs who do not participate in AMS could also request confidentiality on behalf of shippers.
The NCBFAA made several technical recommendations that it said would ease the implementation of the proposed rule. The association also suggested to Customs that NVOCCs’ cargo manifest data should not be treated as “vessel manifest” information as the term is used in 19 C.F.R. '103.31(a), and that this information should not subject to review and disclosure.
The World Shipping Council rejected all the main arguments made by the NCBFAA, and asked Customs to abandon the proposed rule.
The proposal is “inconsistent with the purpose of the statute” because current laws require U.S. import trade data to be “available for public disclosure,” according to the World Shipper Council.
This type of data “is obtained from Customs by commercial enterprises, which develop the data into a variety of information products used by thousands of business and government users” — including U.S. Customs, the carrier group said.
The carrier group said the 24-hour rule does not result in more or new types of data elements being made available for public disclosure, but simply provides that all carriers must now file cargo declarations before the vessel is loaded.
The World Shipping Council also cited the existing right of shippers to request confidentiality of information on them contained in manifests.
“This proposal is clearly not founded upon or justified by the need to address any impairment of the importer’s or the consignee’s ability to exercise this right,” the carrier group said. “It is founded on the explicit, expressed desire of a class of carriers to try to keep as much of this information confidential as possible for their own purposes.”
The World Shipping Council also pointed out that shipper and consignee information has been made public for many years “without significant problems.”
“The Customs 24-hour rule simply requires NVOCCs to file their manifest data with Customs, just like ocean carriers have been doing for years,” it said.
On the question of security and theft, the World Shipping Council argued that these concerns are not related to the publication of shipment manifest information. “The fact that the cargo information is not released until after the shipment is complete also addresses any concern that this data could facilitate cargo theft,” it said.
Peter Gatti, vice president of the NIT League, said the league continues to favor confidentiality in manifests as it does in other commercial documents like service contracts. The league has made its concerns known about the confidentiality of shipper data sent to Customs during several meetings, he said.