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Eurocrats muddy waters on spam

European Parliament's junk-email ruling angers ISPs

An influential European Parliament committee voted to remove email from a list of technologies, including fax and SMS messaging, that should be protected against unsolicited advertising, the Parliament said on Friday.

The Citizens' Rights Committee leads the debate within the European Parliament on the new Data Protection for Telecommunications Directive. A narrow majority of its members agreed to the measure, which will allow spamming in the EU.

A majority also voted to leave the decision on whether or not to require commercial spammers to obtain prior permission from email recipients to the 15 member states themselves.

Fedma, the lobbying group representing the direct marketing industry, welcomed the vote of the Citizen's Rights Committee.

But the committee's position on spam has angered people in the internet service providers industry. "The amendments agreed in the committee take no account of convergence of technologies," said Joe McNamee, European affairs manager with EuroISPA, a lobbying group.

"Why should you need prior consent to send an SMS message to someone's mobile phone, but no prior consent to send an email to the same phone?" McNamee said.

Other positions taken by the Committee seem at odds with each other. The Committee also agreed that user data may not be stored by electronic service providers for longer than necessary for billing purposes and that member states may only lift the protection of data privacy in exceptional and specific cases in order to conduct criminal investigations or safeguard national or public security.

But as regards the use of cookies, the committee moved away from its previously held position that would require prior consent from a website visitor before cookies could be downloaded onto a user's PC — it's now decided that simply having clear access to what cookies have been downloaded is enough.

Prior consent is demanded by the EU's other legislating body, the Council of Ministers, which is where real EU power rests.

There are several EU laws that govern aspects of emailing, including the e-commerce directive, which rules that email should be covered by the law in the country where the recipient of the email is situated.

"Legal certainty would require knowledge of 45 different laws around Europe. The idea the committee has come up with is ridiculously complicated legally," McNamee said.

The Data Protection for Telecommunications Directive will be debated for the final time by the whole assembly of Members of the European Parliament in mid-May. If their final position on the directive differs widely from the position adopted by the Council of Ministers, the two Houses will enter conciliation talks in order to reach an agreement.


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