The European Commission is considering regulating the use of spam and cookies on the Internet.
Spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mail, and cookies, files stored on an Internet user's computer which enable their visits to web sites to be tracked, are two of the less digestible aspects of life on the Internet today.
The commission's move is part of a proposal for a new regulatory framework for telecommunications, which will pave the way to tighter data privacy protection for all electronic communications, commission officials explained this morning during a technical briefing.
Together the measures signal a significant strengthening of data privacy rules in the European Union.
If approved by the European Union's Council of Ministers, the rules will introduce the principle of opt-in for spam meaning that it is legal to send consumers spam only if they have specifically agreed to receive it, for example by clicking on button on a website, commission officials said.
Existing EU rules have led to a confused situation where four member states have opt-in obligations, and five have enacted opt-out rules, where consumers receive spam until they specifically request to be excluded from such mailing lists.
"Most software and hardware already violate existing EU data privacy rules in this respect," said a commission official. As a matter of policy, commission officials refuse to be quoted by name.
In February 1999 a working group on data privacy composed of commission and national representatives had urged industry to restrict the collection of cookies, but so far industry has failed to respond, said the official.
If no action has been taken within a year, the commission will propose amendments to restrict the collection of cookies, he said.
These changes are part of the European Commission's proposals to replace the existing regulatory framework for telecommunications, which is composed of 23 directives, with a streamlined version comprising just eight pieces of legislation.
The proposals put forward last week would also require operators of mobile phone networks to block the use of services which pinpoint the location of mobile phones unless a customer has specifically agreed to allow this information to be collected.
Emergency services across the European Union have requested an exemption to this ban, and the commission and member states have agreed to seek a solution, the official said.