19th Mar 2019

Brussels clinches data retention deal

  • Phone call data can be stored for as long as member states want (Photo: EUobserver)

EU justice and interior ministers have adopted a watered-down decision on data-retention in the fight against terror and organised crime.

Ministers agreed on the storage of phone call information for six to 24 months.

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The stored data would detail the caller and the receiver's numbers - but not the actual conversations themselves.

UK interior minister Charles Clarke's attempt to convince his EU colleagues on the need for a strong EU-wide directive on the controversial counter-terrorism tool caused headaches for ministers, with the first round of talks on Friday ending in a deadlock.

In a second round, the UK presidency reduced its initially high ambitions in favour of a softer compromise deal, leaving more freedom for member states to decide on the length of storage of data or what to do with so-called unanswered calls.

According to today’s decision, member states will have to store the data for six to 24 months, but the deal does not state a maximum time period, cooling anger among member states with legislation on longer storage.

The Polish justice minister was reassured that the Polish scheme for 15-year storage would be uncontested by the EU law.

Agreement to disagree

Justice ministers also agreed to disagree on possible compensation to the telecommunication industry for increased costs, leaving it up to each member state to conclude deals with their national telecommunication providers, as well as on what to with unanswered calls.

Telecommunication companies can under the agreement retain unanswered calls, but are not obliged to do so.

So-called failed calls - calls that do not get through to the receiver - will not be covered by the decision.

Mr Clarke expressed confidence that the European Commission will welcome the member states' compromise, and that the European Parliament will subsequently adopt the law later this month.

Irish set to go to court

But Ireland, which together with Slovenia and Slovakia voted against the revised deal, said it regards the matter as an issue between member states, excluding EU competence.

The Irish justice minister Michael McDowell even announced that Dublin will bring the case before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if the European Parliament approves the scheme.

But coming out from the long meetings on Friday, several other ministers expressed relief at having a final council agreement on the hot topic.

"This is a matter of major importance to Spain, because it deals with the fight against terrorism, which is an absolute priority in our interior policy", Spanish justice minister Juan Fernando Lopez said, explaining that data retention had been crucial in clarifying events surrounding the Madrid bombings in March 2004.

"A consensus that allows for one step forward is better than nothing", he said.

Data retention battle

Questions about data retention have been bandied about in and outside the EU institutions for over a year and a half.

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

But several civil society groups argue data retention is not only an overestimated tool for law enforcement authorities, but also an unacceptable infringement of the privacy of innocent citizens.

The telecommunication industry has also been a strong opponent of data retention, claiming it will face huge costs and possible loss of confidence from clients.

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