26th Oct 2016

EU passes controversial data retention law

  • Telephone records will be stored for at least six months, the new law says (Photo: EUobserver)

EU justice and interior ministers have sealed a landmark data-retention law, forcing telephone operators and internet service providers to store data in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

The data retention directive was approved by ministers in Brussels on Tuesday (21 February), putting an end to a heated debate in and outside EU institutions for over a year and a half.

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The directive aims at tracking down terrorists, paedophiles and criminal gangs, but civil liberties campaigners have argued it damages basic privacy rights and breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

According to the directive, member states will have to store citizens' phone call data for six to 24 months, but the deal does not stipulate a maximum time period, cooling anger among member states who want longer storage periods.

The data would only detail the caller and receiver's numbers, not the actual conversations themselves, while so-called failed calls - calls that do not get through - will not be covered.

EU countries have 18 months to implement the rules, which already have the backing of the European Parliament.

"This is a wonderful example of how co-operation between the council [member states], the commission and the parliament can work," Austrian justice minister Karin Gastinger, hosting the ministers' meeting, said.

Terror attacks trigerred action

The data retention directive was tabled after the Madrid bombings in March 2004 and then fast-tracked under the British EU presidency after the London underground attacks last July.

Britain, France and Sweden have stressed the need to retain data in order to trace terrorists using modern technology.

Swedish justice minister Thomas Bodstrom said on Tuesday he was satisfied with the deal, arguing that fast-moving changes in the telecom market made it important to force phone companies to comply.

Telephone call records are usually saved for a month for billing purposes, but ever more popular pre-paid subscription contracts have led some companies to ditch paperwork.

"In five years, the police would have been faced with a catastrophy, if this deal had not been clinched today," Mr Bodstrom said.

EU oversteps mark?

Ireland and Slovakia voted against the law, saying they regard national security as a matter for member states not the EU.

"This remains our position and we believe that provision for data retention should be made by way of a framework decision under the third pillar," an Irish official indicated.

The third pillar is a technical term relating to intergovernmental decisions made by unanimity, while so-called first pillar decisions are typically made in conjunction with the European Parliament by qualified majority.

"In the circumstances, and for the legal reason I have indicated, we would merely wish to formally record…the fact that Ireland cannot support the adoption of the proposed directive," he added.

Dublin insisted that Ireland retains its veto in justice matters, and is currently cosulting the Irish attorney general about how to proceed with an appeal to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ministry of justice in Slovakia said Bratislava agreed with the content of the directive but also objected to placing it under the first pillar.

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