Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has dismissed suggestions that new Europe-wide laws requiring companies to store telecommunications data to help in the hunt for terrorists will impose excessive costs on industry.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Straw said that while there would be a cost to industry from the planned legislation, "it is a cost we should pay”, referring to last week's public-transport bombings in London.
Straw was commenting on planned new rules, currently under discussion in the 25-member European Union, that would require firms to keep data for access by police and intelligence services attempting to trace terrorism suspects.
The issue will be discussed at an emergency meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers on Wednesday that was called by the UK after the bombings, which killed over 50 people. The UK is chairing EU meetings for the next six months under its rotating presidency.
Straw also rejected claims from industry groups about the cost of the measures. "If the issue is money, costs will be less than [the companies] say," Straw said. He added that in any case, mobile phone operators and ISPs “are not the poorest companies in the world".
Data retention rules have shot back to the top of the EU's antiterrorism agenda following the London bombings. UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said that agreeing on EU-wide data retention rules is a key priority.
He told the BBC: "Telecommunications records, whether of telephone calls or of emails, which record what calls were made from what number to another number at what time, are very important for intelligence."
EU governments have been discussing a proposal on data retention rules first submitted last year after the Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 people. Under that plan, firms would have to keep data for at least one year, with a maximum storage period of three years.
However, phone operators and ISPs argue that the rules would impose an unreasonable cost on them, and that the data would be impossible to obtain in some cases.
Richard Nash, of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA), said that the proposals currently under discussion would "destroy" service providers’ business model because of the problems caused by having to collect and store the data.
Under the current proposal, providers of fixed-line and mobile services and SMS (short message services) and ISPs would have to keep communication traffic data for at least one year and up to a maximum of three years. The rules apply to data such as call time, duration and destination but not content.
The UK aims to get a deal on the rules in October.
But the European Commission and the European Parliament are objecting to the current proposal for several reasons, including concerns about the impact on industry, data protection worries and doubts about the data's value to law enforcement agencies.
In the coming weeks, the EC – the EU's executive body – is planning to present its own proposal, which would try to address some of these concerns. EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said on Monday that phone data should be kept for one year, while internet data should be stored for six months.
But there are fears that the Commission's plan would take too long to implement because the European Parliament would have to be consulted.