EU deems UK privacy laws inadequate, takes legal action

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The European Union has warned the UK government that it does not do enough to protect its citizens' online privacy and personal data. Now the EU has moved to the next stage of legal action, which could see Britain taken to court.

The warning follows complaints over the Phorm company's targeted advertising system. The controversial technology is designed to track the activities of internet users, and was tested on some BT customers without their consent. Campaigners complained to various bodies including the UK's data protection agency, and the communications regulator Ofcom. No action was taken. The City of London police began an investigation, but this was soon dropped.

People's privacy and the integrity of their personal data in the digital world is not only an important matter: it is a fundamental right

—Viviane Reding, EU Information Commissioner

The EU Commission formally warned Britain that it was not meeting EU rules in April. Other countries that have been warned include Germany, Poland and Romania. However, last week the Commission moved onto the second stage of the infringement procedure against the UK, with a letter to the government.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has been particularly criticised by the Commission for its weak definition of "consent" and its limited sanctions. The Commission also found that there was no independent body to oversee and hear complaints about communications interception. Overall, the letter says that the UK fails to comply with the EU's Data Protection Directive and e-Privacy Directive.

"People's privacy and the integrity of their personal data in the digital world is not only an important matter: it is a fundamental right, protected by European law," the EU's Information Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a statement on Thursday. "I therefore call on the UK authorities to change their national laws to ensure that British citizens fully benefit from the safeguards set out in EU law concerning confidentiality of electronic communications."

The Home Office confirmed that it had received the letter, but has so far not responded. Ministers said that they would reply to the letter after they have taken some time to consider it. The Home Office has two months to reply, and if the Commission is not satisfied with the response, then Britain could face charges in the European Court of Justice.