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Spam out, cookies tolerated, data retention remains: EU

Communications Data Protection Directive nearly there

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Unsolicited email, better known as spam, has been outlawed by the European Union. Internet-fed identification programs, better known as cookies, will be tolerated if people are informed of them. And EU governments can order the retention of customer data beyond useful billing purposes.

These were the main three changes to European law agreed yesterday when the European Council finally came to agreement over the controversial Communications Data Protection Directive.

All three measures have been the subject of heated debate for over a year with amendments jumping back and forth between the Council and committees, often turning the previous policy on its head.

However, with respect to spam and cookies, Euro ministers have finally beaten out a compromise. Spam is banned. Despite lobbying efforts (and fuzzy logic) by pro-spam MEPs, the Council has decided the disadvantages of millions of unsolicited electronic messages far outweigh the possible advantages in providing information.

A balancing inclusion into the directive will allow a company to email those people who have made a purchase from it - but on the condition that a customer can opt out of the mailing list at any time and free of charge.

The Council watered down its hardline stance on cookies by not banning them. It has however insisted that people are made aware of any cookie before it is installed on their machine. This will not make big business happy - they use cookies to track visitors to their Web sites. It does have the advantage though of protecting citizens and being based upon commonsense.

The data retention decision is more controversial. Euro ministers have introduced changes to the directive under pressure from the UK government that will allow separate countries to decide whether or not to allow for the retention of electronic data for up to seven years.

Previously, the Council had been in favour of banning such retention outright, arguing that it breached Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. Under existing law, any such data has to be deleted within 30 days.

The Directive still has to be approved by the European Parliament before it becomes EU law. Parliament is unlikely to make any striking changes though especially since it has taken so long to reach agreement in the previous six stages (see the chronological stories below). The completed directive is likely to come into force early next year. ®

The long and torrid history of the Communications Data Protection Directive

Europe told to rethink e-privacy directive 6 December 2001
EU wages war on cookie monster 14 November 2001
UK govt wants to decide own spam policy 30 October 2001
EU says 'oui' to spam 23 October 2001
EU anti-spam legislation up again this evening 22 October 2001
Euro spam vote in limbo 7 September 2001
MEP Cashman tries to support pro-spam stance 18 July 2001
Europe bottles spam ban 11 July 2001
Europe holds key vote on spam tomorrow 10 July 2001
Green light for Euro data retention plans 29 June 2001
Europe warms to spam ban 11 January 2001
Europe to ban spam? 8 November 2000
Anti-spammers petition European Parliament 19 April 1999

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