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26th Mar 2017

EU proposes tougher privacy rules for online messaging

  • Messaging services are facing tougher privacy rules (Photo: Nicolas Nova)

The EU commission is tightening privacy rules on messaging services like WhatsApp, Skype and web-based email.

On Tuesday (10 January), it proposed to overhaul the e-privacy directive to bridge the gap between traditional telephone operators and the broadly US-based instant messaging services.

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The current directive, last reformed in 2009, only covers telecom operators. The reform expands the rules to online services, gives people more control over intrusive cookies, and evolves the directive into a much more powerful regulation.

The EU commission says the reforms are also needed because over 90 percent of people in an EU survey want their emails and online messaging to remain confidential.

The proposal involves giving people the choice to opt in or out of services provided by so-called Over-The-Top (OTT) applications such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. But it also claims to open up new business opportunities for more traditional telecom operators by allowing them to commercialise data that was previously off limits.

"Consent of the user is paramount," EU digital economy commissioner Andrus Ansip told reporters.

Ansip said the new rules would not only apply to traditional services like voice calls or SMS, but also to internet based communication services "or future based services that allow any type of communication".

Consent will be required for anything from so-called metadata - the details of when and where a call was placed - to the content of communications.

Email providers like Gmail regularly scan people's emails to help target adverts. Cookies are also required to provide Google's translation services of those emails.

The Commission says the same services will now have to provide "effective consent", giving people a more readily available option of saying no instead of having to read through the small print in the terms and conditions.

Gmail will also only be able to process the bare minimum of data needed to provide the email service for free.

It means today's email scanning will be banned unless the user agrees. But saying no to email scans only prevents adverts from being personalised or relevant to the user. It does not stop adverts.

Consent won't be needed for everything. Things like remembering shopping histories and filling in online forms will be exempted.

One Finnish web developer recently discovered a "phishing" attack that specifically targets auto-fill, reported the Guardian.

The developer found that some browsers like Google Chrome's auto-fill can be tricked into giving away personal information like email addresses through an auto-fill function that is not disabled by default.

Brussels-based consumer lobby group Beuc argues that the Commission's proposal should have blocked cookies by default.

“Consumers must have an alternative to being under 24/7 commercial surveillance when using digital services," said Beuc director Monique Goyens.

Some are not happy, fearing it will cut into their advertising revenues.

"The approach to extend historic telephony rules to new services does not reflect today’s market realities," said the Brussels-based American Chamber of Commerce to the EU.

Firms that break the rules could end up paying fines of up to 4 percent of their global turnover.

The Brussels-executive is hoping to have the new rules up and running by the time the EU's data protection regulation, agreed last year, is fully operational by May 2018.

Data protection regulation and e-privacy

EU commission officials say their is no overlap between e-privacy and the general data protection regulation.

They note that the regulation deals with processing of personal data, while e-privacy covers communication between people.

OTTs under the old data protection rules were also able use a "legitimate interest" clause to process data without people's consent. The new rules remove that clause.

The EU's digital economy in 2015 was worth €272 billion.

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