MEPs approve ePrivacy bill amid political fight

MEPs in the Civil Liberties Committee approved a privacy bill that will affect telecoms and digital services like WhatsApp. [Microsiervos / Flickr]

MEPs in the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) approved stricter new privacy rules for telecoms services and apps like WhatsApp and Skype that divided political groups and drew backlash from the telecoms and tech industries.

A majority of 31 MEPs backed the committee’s report on Thursday (29 October) on the ePrivacy legislation, which was authored by Estonian Socialist MEP Marju Lauristin. Twenty-four MEPs voted against the bill and one abstained.

Centre-right MEPs rejected the bill because they argued it will restrict companies’ ability to process consumer data.

“European citizens should be allowed to benefit from both a high level of privacy as well as innovative products and services based on non-privacy intrusive data processing,” said Polish MEP Michal Boni, a member of the centre-right EPP group.

Left-wing and Liberal MEPs hailed the vote as a victory for data protection rights.

German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said the rules would give European companies an advantage over American tech giants by winning over consumer trust.

“Many European tech firms have already realised that they can be ahead of Silicon Valley in the future if they put a strong focus on confidentiality and data protection rules,” Albrecht said.

Member states ask for new EU data retention rules

Several EU member states want to include new rules allowing for data retention in a draft privacy bill.

The legislation must be approved in three-way negotiations with national governments and the European Commission before it can go into effect.

The European Commission proposed an updated version of the ePrivacy law earlier this year, sparking controversy because the bill pulled online services like WhatsApp under the rules, which previously only applied to telecoms companies.

Companies lined up to complain about the rules after the Parliament committee voted.

DigitalEurope, a lobby group that represents tech firms, called the report “unbalanced” and said it will “prevent beneficial technological innovation even when there is no or little impact on citizen’s right to confidentiality”, especially in machines or internet-connected devices.

Advertisers argued that the safeguards to prevent websites from tracking consumers without their consent could clamp down on their revenue and hurt online news outlets as well.

“News and other online services rely on data-driven, ad-funded business models to finance the creation of content. Content that must be given away for nothing will ultimately end up being worth nothing,” said Townsend Feehan, the CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

But privacy advocates and consumer groups praised the draft legislation.

Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumer Organisation, said MEPs “sided with consumers” by approving the bill.

“It’s alarming that the online companies who claim to be the trendsetters and the engine of the digital economy cling to an advertising business model based on snooping on people,” Goyens said.

Member states want looser data rules in draft ePrivacy bill

EU member states are divided over a proposal to change privacy rules for telecoms operators, with some countries calling for looser rules on when they can use consumers’ personal data.