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30th Jan 2023

EU justice ministers agree compromise on data retention

  • The EU wants to store mobile phone conversations to track terrorists (Photo: EUobserver)

EU justice ministers have backed down on a council proposal on data retention and instead decided to seek the help of the commission and parliament to reach a decision.

Unable to reach an agreement on a data retention proposal of their own, the justice ministers decided at a council meeting in Luxembourg on Wednesday (12 October) to move ahead with a "compromise proposal" from the commission.

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This compromise from the commission suggests member states should have more freedom to make up their own rules than what has been proposed by the council.

"We want maximum flexibility for member states to decide on the length of storage or what to do with unanswered calls", said the UK secretary of state Charles Clarke, on behalf of the UK Presidency at a press conference at the council meeting in Luxembourg.

Data shall be stored for between 6 months and 2 years, according to the new proposal. The council proposal implied a minimum of 1 year and as long as up to 4 years of storage.

"We also want flexibility on the issue of costs", Mr Clarke said.

Mobile phone operator and Internet service providers have complained that long-term storage of communications data will be an expensive affair.

The council proposal has been rejected twice by parliament, with MEPs particularly worried about civil rights infringements.

Justice commissioner Franco Frattini made assurances on Wednesday that a discussion on data protection would be held in parallel to that of data retention in order to safeguard privacy rights. He urged all three EU institutions to work together on this matter.

"We will try to persuade parliament’s liberty committee about the added value of reaching a comprehensive agreement between the three institution in this very sensitive area", he said.

Data protection laws deal with checks on the use of private information such as a person's name, address, phone number, bank records, medical records or airline passenger lists.

Retaining such data for analysis is believed to be useful in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

After last year's terrorist attack in Madrid and the London attacks in July, individual member states have wanted to move faster in implementing new laws, while the parliament and commission have fought to be a part of the deal.

The original draft was put forward by member states UK, Sweden, France and Ireland in the direct aftermath of the terror attack in Madrid in 2004.

After yesterday's announcement that the council draft was dropped in favour of the commission compromise, Swedish justice minister Thomas Bodström said that he was prepared to by-pass the EU on data laws.

"If the Parliament had not said no [to our proposal], it would not have had anything to discuss at all. Let us now try for real this time. Otherwise we are ready to move on our own, he said.

But Irish justice minister Michael McDowell said according to Irish media, that the commission had no legal power to legislate on the issue of data retention. Dublin would consider legal action if new EU rules threatened Ireland's own data retention law, he said according to The Irish Times.

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