BRUSSELS Online messaging and email services
such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Gmail
will face tough new rules on how they can track users under a
proposal presented by the European Union executive on Tuesday.
The web players will have to guarantee the confidentiality
of their customers' conversations and ask for their consent
before tracking them online to serve them personalised ads.
The proposal by the European Commission extends some rules
that now only apply to telecom operators to web companies
offering calls and messages using the internet, known as
"Over-The-Top" (OTT) services, seeking to close a perceived
regulatory gap between the telecoms industry and mainly U.S.
Internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft.
Tuesday's proposal would allow telecom companies to use
customer metadata - such as the duration and location of calls -
to provide additional services and make more money, something
they are barred from doing under the current rules.
However the telecoms industry said the proposal still
imposed stricter obligations on them than on web companies.
"Unlike others, telcos risk being prevented from expanding
consumer choice by using traffic and location data for big data
analytics, IoT (Internet of Things) and connected driving
services," said Lise Fuhr, director general of ETNO, the
European telecoms lobby.
The review of the so-called e-privacy law will also require
web browsers to ask users upon installation whether they want to
allow websites to place cookies on their browsers. A previous
leaked version would have forced browsers to set the default
settings as not allowing cookies.
"It's up to our people to say yes or no," said Andrus Ansip,
Commission vice-president for the digital single market.
Cookies are placed on web surfers' computers and contain
bits of information about the user, such as what other sites
they have visited or where they are logging in from. They are
widely used by companies to deliver targeted ads to users.
Online advertisers have warned that overly strict rules
would undermine many websites' ability to fund themselves and
keep offering free services. They say the data they use can not
identify the user and is therefore low risk, making asking for
consent every time too onerous.
"It will particularly hit those companies that ... find it
most difficult to talk directly to end users and what I mean by
that is tech companies that operate in the background and sort
of facilitate the buying and selling of advertising rather than
the ones that the user directly engages with," said Yves
Schwarzbart, head of policy and regulatory affairs at the
Internet Advertising Bureau.
Companies falling foul of the new law will face fines of up
to 4 percent of their global turnover, in line with a separate
data protection law set to enter into force in 2018.
The proposal will need to be approved by the European
Parliament and member states before becoming law.
($1 = 0.9464 euros)
(Additional reporting by Esha Vaish in Bangalore)