European Parliament to Postpone IP Privacy Issue

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European parliamentarians, set to vote on changes to the European telecommunications legal landscape this week, will put off at least one crucial question: Should IP addresses be considered private data?

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will give their verdict on a range of issues including how to regulate telecom companies in the EU, how to punish firms that distort competition, how to share the windfall of radio frequencies that are being freed up by TV's migration to digital broadcasting, and how to preserve citizens' data in the digital age.

But they are divided about whether to consider IP addresses as personal data. "We will ask the Commission formally to produce a report on this," said Malcolm Harbour, a British conservative MEP who is playing a central role shepherding the so-called telecom review through the Parliament.

"There is no attempt to answer this question in the telecoms package. First we need to know exactly what an IP address is," Harbour said during a telephone interview. "In my opinion it only becomes personal data if other personal information is added to it," he added.

Lots of IP addresses have no connection with individual computer users, he said. These include RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that are attached to products during their distribution, or webcams set up at holiday resorts to monitor the weather.

Even when individuals are accessing the Internet they may be assigned different IP addresses by their ISP (Internet service provider) each time they log on, Harbour said.

One connected issue that will be covered in the telecom review is cookies -- code placed on users' browsers by Web sites that allow the sites to identify the users. An existing six-year-old law obliges Web sites to ask visitors for permission before downloading a cookie onto their machines. Harbour said that under the review, these provisions are being tightened up to further protect people's privacy.

There is broad agreement among MEPs on some of the most contentious plans for the telecom review. They want the European Commission's original plan to create a centralized telecom regulator for the 27-country block to be dropped, favoring a more decentralized regulatory structure for the industry.

At present the telecom industry is regulated by national regulators, who together comprise the European Regulators' Group (ERG). However, they frequently disagree on how to interpret EU-wide telecom laws, and many national regulators struggle to guard their independence from their governments.

Harbour said a decentralized approach that leaves power in the hands of national regulators is more appropriate. However, they should have more funds in order to ensure their independence from national governments.

The Commission, meanwhile, is still trying to convince lawmakers that a regulatory regime controlled by the Commission is the only way to ensure that the market functions properly.

There is also widespread support among MEPS for granting telecom regulators the power to force operators to split up if they

are distorting competition.

Former public monopolies in all EU countries own the majority of the telecom networks in their markets and compete with other

firms to provide services across the networks. MEPs are expected to agree that if rival service providers can't get fair access to the networks, regulators should be able to force the incumbent operators to separate network from service operations.

However, despite the broad agreement on many of the most contentious topics, it won't be possible for the Parliament to agree on all the issues in one single reading, Harbour said.

"It's a very complex package of legislation. It wouldn't be appropriate to try and get it passed in one reading," he said.

Besides, the national governments haven't agreed on a common position on the telecom review yet. Parliament and the national governments have to reach an agreement in order to pass the telecom package.

Harbour, together with other key players in the Parliament, will meet the French government next month to try to speed up this process. France holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU. It has scheduled the telecom package to be discussed in a meeting of telecom ministers on Nov. 27.

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