E-privacy bill needs more work, EU governments say

5 December 2018 12:11pm

4 December 2018. By Vesela Gladicheva.

Privacy rules for Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger being debated by EU governments still need to address questions including how they might affect small businesses, and how to tackle new technologies such as Internet-connected objects, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, several countries said today.

"We need to clear these questions before we move further," Slovenia’s representative said during a meeting of national telecom officials in Brussels streamed online, echoing the concerns of other governments including those of Germany, Italy, Malta and Poland.

The European Commission put forward the controversial “e-privacy” bill almost two years ago, and EU countries are still struggling to agree on a common position due to complex legal and technical questions. They aren't yet ready to enter the final stage of talks on the proposal with the commission and the European Parliament, which adopted its stance in October 2017.

The draft regulation aims to bring existing EU rules into line with the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force in May this year, and to expand the scope of e-privacy rules — which currently only cover traditional telecom providers.

During today’s debate, some countries stressed the need to consider whether the e-privacy rules might restrict the development of innovative services, even if that question would oblige the commission to carry out a new impact assessment of its proposal. That could further delay agreement on the bill.

Finland said the new rules shouldn't apply to machine-to-machine communications, where networked devices exchange information and perform actions without human assistance.

Germany said the law should give companies access to information stored on customers' smartphones and tablets for the provision of services such as smart monitoring of energy use, as well as automated and connected driving.

The Czech Republic went as far as to suggest that "it might be time for a substantial change," because governments have had "only limited success" over the past two years of discussions.

"New problems pop up once we solve old ones," the Czech representative said. One option would be to introduce "major cutbacks" in the bill and put the emphasis on "simple, effective rules," he said.

Only four countries — Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus — voiced willingness to start negotiations with the European Parliament now

GDPR, national security

Many governments mentioned the importance of further aligning the e-privacy bill with the GDPR to clarify where each regime applies. For example, data collected through satellite systems should be covered by the GDPR, while data from telecom base stations should be subject to the e-privacy law, the Polish representative suggested.

Germany and the UK were among a small number of governments that said the e-privacy rules shouldn't apply to national-security and defense activities.

Speaking at the same meeting, EU digital chief Andrus Ansip voiced disappointment at governments' inability to agree their position on the bill, and warned of "negative consequences" for society and industry if there are further delays.

“I'm absolutely sure that this proposal is really AI-friendly," he said in response to several countries’ concerns about the impact of the bill on new technologies such as artificial intelligence. "In no way will it hurt innovation. We have to move forward with this proposal."

Andrea Jelinek