EU seeks to limit data retention rules to one year

European Parliament wants telcos and ISPs to hold on to call data for a year

Members of the European Parliament's civil liberties committee voted on Thursday to limit to 12 months the maximum period for which telephone companies and ISPs (Internet service providers) should store call data logs.

The new rules being negotiated by the Parliament and 25 European Union governments are designed to help law enforcement agencies track terrorist suspects. Police and intelligence agencies managed to identify the bombers in the London and Madrid attacks at least partly through mobile phone records.

European Union governments have been pushing for the data to be kept for up to two years for telephone calls and for up to six months for Internet data.

The draft legislation will now go back to the Council of Ministers, made up of representatives from the E.U. governments, for them to make further changes. The Parliament and the Council will then have to reach a compromise on the final legislation.

The civil liberties committee's position was a "major success on a highly sensitive and delicate subject that seeks to strike a fair and workable balance between the needs of combating terrorism without eroding basic civil liberties and the right to privacy," according to German Free Democrat MEP Alexander Alvaro, who drafted the committee's opinion.

The committee also agreed that the data retention requirements should apply only to cases of serious crime rather than all crimes, as E.U. governments had wanted. This came in reaction to what was seen as heavy-handed lobbying from music industry groups who wanted Internet logs to be used to prosecute people for illegally downloading music files.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) also wanted national governments to be forced to reimburse telephone and Internet companies for the costs of storing the data and making it available to law enforcement agencies. They also wanted to make it optional whether data on unsuccessful calls (i.e. those not connected or answered) have to be stored. National governments want this to be compulsory.

A spokesman for the U.K. government, which currently has the presidency of the European Union, said E.U. member states were opposed to nearly all of the changes requested by the MEPs. He said there would likely be particular problems over the length of time for which data had to be kept and the reimbursement of costs.

E.U. justice and home affairs ministers are meeting in Brussels next Thursday to finalize their position and are expected to overturn many of the amendments agreed by MEPs.

A spokesman for the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA) said that his group "cautiously welcomed" Thursday's vote. Richard Nash, EuroISPA secretary-general, said a lot of clarification was needed. There was still concern on the scope of the rules, especially whether email logs would need to be kept.

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