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27th Nov 2021

EU privacy rules tilt to industry, NGO says

A pro-transparency group has documented intense industry lobbying in the lead up to a vote on digital privacy at the European Parliament this week.

Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO, on Tuesday (17 October) said over 800 amendments had been tabled on a bill designed to protect privacy and protection of electronic communication data for people.

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First proposed earlier this year by the European Commission, the so-called e-privacy regulation is facing a key vote in the civil liberties committee on Thursday (19 October) with the bulk of the amendments weighing in favour of the industry.

The NGO report suggests a heavy footprint from the industry in the lead up to the EU commission's proposal in January and towards MEPs ahead of the Thursday vote.

It noted some 41 meetings to discuss the file were held in 2016 between lobbyists and the European Commission. Of those, 36 were corporate interest and five with civil society.

"The figure of 41 meetings is likely to be an under-estimate," notes the report, given that private meetings and roundtable talks are not included.

It noted that industry lobby groups in Brussels have spent large sums of money to represent big internet firms like Amazon, Facebook, Google or telecom companies like Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone.

E-privacy or data protection

The industry is broadly opposed to the regulation, claiming it will restrict innovation and that the upcoming data protection regulation is good enough.

The data protection regulation deals with personal data, whereas e-privacy deals with the confidentiality of communications.

Trade unions, civil groups and NGOs say e-privacy rules are needed to protect fundamental rights.

A leaked version of the proposal, first published by Politico Europe in December 2016, took on a sudden shift towards pro-industry views when the EU commission finally made the proposal public the following month.

"It is impossible to say exactly what impact all the heavy corporate lobbying had on the final Commission proposal," noted the report.

But it said things like default privacy settings and the ability for class-action suits went missing in the final version.

The final version was presented in late January by EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova and Andrus Ansip, the vice-president for the digital single market.

"Our proposal will guarantee privacy for both content and metadata derived from electronic communications for example like the time and location of a call," said Ansip at the time.

He noted people will have the right to say yes or no when it comes to use of their own data and that user consent would be paramount.

But others like the Paris-based digital activist NGO, La Quadrature du Net, say the reforms to be voted on Thursday would broadly strip users of their consent.

It says the political groups have agreed to compromises that favour the industry over fundamental rights.

Such data is big money. In 2015, it was valued at €275 billion in the European Union. The EU commission believes it could triple by 2020.

The latest reforms aims to replace the current e-privacy directive, which applies only to telecom operators.

The plan is to pry open online messaging services and collect the content or meta-data, such as place and time, supposedly based on user consent.

Metadata can be used to produce heat maps in terms of where people are moving, which may be useful for developing transport services.

The content of emails are being scanned for targeted advertising, which may also pose privacy issues for the users.

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