THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION (EC) laid out tougher privacy rules for electronic communications, with a focus on restricting the advertising tracking powers of services such as WhatsApp, Apple, Facebook, Skype and Gmail.
The measures were presented under the title of Regulation on Privacy and Electronic Communications and aim to "reinforce trust and security in the Digital Single Market" while bringing standards in line with the incoming GDPR legislation.
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said the proposals "will complete the EU data protection framework", ensuring "the privacy of electronic communications is protected by up to date and effective rules, and that European institutions will apply the same high standards that [the EU] expect[s] from… Member States".
The Regulation proposals name WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Gmail, iMessage and Viber specifically as examples of "electronic communications services" that the privacy rules will cover in order to "increase the protection of people's private life".
Key proposals include rules for protecting all electronic communications equally, so that both the content and the metadata of the information, such as the time and date of when it is sent, is off-limits, unless approved by the user or vital to a how the service operates.
"Both have a high privacy component and, under the proposed rules, will need to be anonymised or deleted if users have not given their consent, unless the data is required for instance for billing purposes" the proposal states.
The EC said bringing in such requirements could have benefits for businesses, by helping them gather more data that can be used legitimately and shared appropriately.
"For example, they could produce heat maps indicating the presence of individuals to help public authorities and transport companies when developing new infrastructure projects," the EC said.
This is notably at odds with UK law, under the Investigatory Powers Bill, that is forcing telcos to retain metadata on citizens for a year, should it be required for law enforcement. The top EU court has already ruled this is illegal under European law.
Meanwhile, simpler, more "streamlined" tracking cookie consent requests on websites are also mooted, which could see the number of pop-ups users are subject to altered.
"The proposal clarifies that no consent is needed for non-privacy intrusive cookies improving internet experience (e.g. to remember shopping cart history). Cookies set by a visited website counting the number of visitors to that website will no longer require consent," it stated.
Overall, the proposals contain an interesting number of considerations for many major firms and how they conduct business. Google is well-known for mining consumer Gmail accounts for marketing and tracking data, while Facebook is commonly believed to have launched the Facebook Messenger app specifically for this purpose too, now disallowing the use of the website's built-in messaging ability when using Facebook on a mobile phone. Clearly these revenue streams are important to such companies.
How the plans affect UK citizens remains to be seen, though, as it is quite clearly at odds with new laws the UK is introducing and with the Brexit process set to be triggered later this year it may end up proving moot.
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