Campaigners Prepare to Battle EU Data Storage Bill

By Huw Jones

Telecom firms and civil liberty groups are readying themselves to influence a battle next month between European Union member states and the European Commission over rival plans to log calls and emails to combat terror.

A council of EU justice and interior ministers put forward a data-logging plan after the March 2004 Madrid train bombs, saying retaining such data would help tackle terror and other crime. The attacks in London in July revived the plan.

EU ministers have pledged to reach final agreement in October, but the Commission hopes it can persuade ministers to switch to the executive's proposal for a directive next month.

The council text would only need member state approval, while the Commission's would need the go-ahead from the European Parliament as well as member states.

"We expect the directive to be presented mid-September," said Alexander Alvaro, the German EU deputy responsible for data retention. The Commission has said it would present its proposal after the summer.

"I don't believe the council will ignore this because if they do it would be an institutional slap in the face. Lobbying has increased quite a lot and now it's becoming serious."

The presidency of the EU, currently held by Britain, had no immediate comment.

Neither proposal seeks to log the content of email and telephone traffic. A draft of the Commission's proposal was recently obtained by the European Digital Rights group EDRI.

The Commission wants calls and email traffic to be retained for six months to a year, while member states proposed up to 48 months. The council plan wants all Web addresses people use to be logged but the Commission draft makes no mention of this.

Over 27,000 people have already signed an EDRI online anti-logging petition.

"Large scale data mining will lead to many people's innocent behavior becoming suspicious," said Sjoera Nas, board member of EDRI, which sees no need for either proposal.

"There will be this whole climactic battle in September between the Commission and the justice ministers," Nas said.

Telecom firms outside the European Union also worry a lengthy retention period would become the norm for them as well.

"What benefit is only half a call record? If American carriers are either originating or terminating an international call, then they are in fact covered by this requirement," Stephen Trotman, a senior vice president at U.S. carrier industry group CompTel in Washington said. "What's going to happen is that the additional cost of retaining, storing and sorting that data is going to be shifted to the consumer. The consumers will pay for their own privacy to be invaded," Trotman said.

The council plan makes no mention of who would pay extra IT costs, while the Commission says in its draft proposal that governments should contribute toward compliance costs.

A study by Dutch Erasmus University shows in nearly all 65 cases where traffic data was useful in combating crime, the police got the information they needed from data going back three months -- the typical period data is already stored by telecom firms for billing purposes.

"Three months in general should be enough for storing data," Alvaro said.

German industry bodies BITKOM, BDI and VATM said a solid and adequate impact study of the proposals has not been done and that any retention period must not exceed six months.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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