Thu, Feb 22, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Europe prepares new Internet and phone laws

BIG BROTHER? The new `Data Retention Directive' has some people worried about a policy shift in Europe -- a long defender of individual privacy rights


European governments are preparing legislation to require companies to keep detailed data about people's Internet and phone use that goes beyond what the countries will be required to do under an EU directive.

In Germany, a proposal from the Ministry of Justice would essentially prohibit using false information to create an e-mail account, making the standard Internet practice of creating accounts with pseudonyms illegal.

A draft law in the Netherlands would likewise go further than the EU requires, in this case by requiring phone companies to save records of a caller's precise location during an entire mobile phone conversation.

Even now, Internet service providers in Europe divulge customer information -- which they normally keep on hand for about three months, for billing purposes -- to police officials with legally valid orders on a routine basis, said Peter Fleischer, the Paris-based European privacy counsel for Google. The data concerns how the communication was sent and by whom but not its content.

But law enforcement officials argued after the terrorist bombings in Spain and Britain that they needed better and longer data storage from companies handling communications networks.

EU countries have until 2009 to put the Data Retention Directive into law, so the proposals seen now are early interpretations. But some people involved in the issue are concerned about a shift in policy in Europe, which has long been a defender of individuals' privacy rights.

Under the proposals in Germany, consumers theoretically could not create fictitious e-mail accounts, to disguise themselves in online auctions, for example. Nor could they use a made-up account to use for receiving commercial junk mail. While e-mail aliases would not be banned, they would have to be traceable to the actual account holder.

"This is an incredibly bad thing in terms of privacy, since people have grown up with the idea that you ought to be able to have an anonymous e-mail account," Fleischer said. "Moreover, it's totally unenforceable and would never work."

Fleischer said the law would have to require some kind of identity verification, "like you may have to register for an e-mail address with your national ID card."

Joerg Hladjk, a privacy lawyer at Hunton & Williams, a law firm in Brussels, Belgium, said that might also mean that it could become illegal to pay cash for prepaid cellphone accounts. The billing information for regular cellphone subscriptions is already verified.

Fleischer said: "It's ironic, because Germany is one of the countries in Europe where people talk the most about privacy. In terms of consciousness of privacy in general, I would put Germany at the extreme end."

He said it was not clear that any European law would apply to e-mail providers based in the US, such as Google, so anyone who needed an unverified e-mail address -- for political, commercial or philosophical reasons -- could still use Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail addresses.

"It's going to be difficult to know which law applies," Hladjk said.

Google requires only two pieces of information to open a Gmail account -- a name and a password -- and the company does not try to determine whether the name is authentic.

In the Netherlands, the proposed extension of the law on phone company records to all mobile location data "implies surveillance of the movement of large amounts of innocent citizens," the Dutch Data Protection Agency has said.

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