EU Ministers debate ISP data retention rules

Telecommunication ministers of the 15 countries that comprise the EU are heading for a confrontation with the European Parliament over a new data-protection law under construction.

          Telecommunication ministers of the 15 countries that comprise the European Union are heading for a confrontation with the European Parliament over a new data-protection law under construction.

          Experts working for the 15 ministers have proposed that the directive on data protection for telecommunication should give more scope for law enforcement authorities to access phone and internet traffic data. They also want to limit commercial spammers by banning unsolicited email, according to an internal document, made available to IDG News Service, that is to be presented this week to ambassadors of the 15 member states by the Council of Ministers working party on telecommunication.

          Last week the European Parliament voted to make it more difficult for authorities to gain access to people's traffic data. They also agreed to remove email from the list of communication technologies that should be free of unsolicited direct marketing messages, leaving the decision of whether to ban spam to member state governments.

          The new position on data retention by ministers of the national governments is more hard-line than the one telecom ministers agreed on at a Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg in June, but certain member states, including the UK, are known to have wanted more access to traffic data for some time.

          The recent terrorist attacks in the US have toughened their resolve, said one EU diplomat, who requested anonymity. "We think this new version of the directive sends a powerful signal and it responds to the events of September 11," he says.

          The 15 ambassadors are expected to rubber-stamp the new Council of Ministers version of the directive at their meeting this week to prepare the agenda for next week's meeting of telecom ministers. However, the ministers may make changes, the diplomat says.

          "Some member states have problems with this new text," he says. "Austria especially, but also Germany and Denmark aren't entirely happy with it. There is still work to be done."

          Opinion appears most divided on the spam question, with 11 countries in favour of a ban on unsolicited email, and four -- the UK, Ireland, Luxembourg and France -- preferring a less stringent "opt-out" approach.

          Other issues raised in the new directive include how to deal with cookies and SMS (short message service) text messages to mobile phones. The European Parliament voted to ban the sending of unsolicited commercial SMS messages. It also voted to ban all cookies other than those needed to operate a website.

          The Council's telecom working group has changed the wording on the cookies article, but the diplomat said this did not mark a significant move away from the position adopted by the European Parliament. Nor did it differ on SMS messaging, he adds.

          The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament must agree on a text in order for this directive to become a law.

          "Data retention and spam are the two issues the two Houses will negotiate around," the diplomat says.

          A lobbyist for ISPs (internet service providers) says they oppose stringent data-retention rules, but favor an all-out ban on spam.

          "If the Council wins on data retention and the Parliament wins by allowing spam, then the only loser will be the customer -- twice over," says Joe McNamee, EU affairs manager for EuroISPA, the association of ISPs in Europe.

          ISPs are opposed to unsolicited email for three main reasons. First, it is one of the main reasons people leave one ISP for another, in order to delete the trail they have left for spammers. Second, spam provokes people to complain to their ISPs, and dealing with these complaints adds to their costs. And third, it enforces the idea that the internet is a Wild West full of crooks seeking to rip off users, so it harms the general perception of the internet, McNamee says.

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