29 October 2009

Commission steps up UK legal action over privacy and personal data protection


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The European Commission has moved to the second phase of an infringement proceeding over the UK to provide its citizens with the full protection of EU rules on privacy and personal data protection when using electronic communications. European laws state that EU countries must ensure the confidentiality of people’s electronic communications like email or internet browsing by prohibiting their unlawful interception and surveillance without the user’s consent. As these rules have not been fully put in place in the national law of the UK, the Commission today said that it will send the UK a reasoned opinion.

Specifically, the Commission has identified

Three Gaps In the Existing UK Rules

governing the confidentiality of electronic communications, namely:

No Independent National Authority

to supervise interception of communications, although the establishment of such authority is required under the ePrivacy and Data Protection Directives, in particular to hear complaints regarding interception of communications;

No Need To Grant Explicit Consent

The current UK law the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) authorises interception of communications not only where the persons concerned have consented to interception but also when the person intercepting the communications has ‘reasonable grounds for believing’ that consent to do so has been given. These UK law provisions do not comply with EU rules defining consent as freely given specific and informed indication of a person’s wishes;

No Sanctions Against Unlawful Interception

The RIPA provisions prohibiting and providing sanctions in case of unlawful interception are limited to ‘intentional’ interception only, whereas the EU law requires Members States to prohibit and to ensure sanctions against any unlawful interception regardless of whether committed intentionally or not.

The UK has two months to reply to this second stage of the infringement proceeding. If the Commission receives no reply, or if the response presented by the UK is not satisfactory, the Commission may refer the case to the European Court of Justice.

To me, this is a clear signal that data protection and privacy are considered highly valuable achievements that need to be  protected within the European dimension.