On 19 October 2017, the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee adopted its report on the ePrivacy Regulation. The amendments improve the original proposal by strengthening confidentiality requirements for electronic communication services, and include a ban on tracking walls, legally binding signals for giving or refusing consent to online tracking, and privacy by design requirements for web browsers and apps. Before trilogue negotiations can start, the Council of the European Union (the Member States’ governments) must adopt its “general approach”. The Council Presidency, currently held by Austria, is tasked with securing a compromise among the Member States. This article analyses the most recent draft text from the Austrian Council Presidency 12336/18.
Further processing of electronic communications metadata
The current ePrivacy Directive only allows processing of electronic communications metadata for specific purposes given in the Directive, such as billing. The draft Council ePrivacy text in Article 6(2a) introduces further processing for compatible purposes similar to Article 6(4) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This further processing must be based on pseudonymous data, profiling individual users is not allowed, and the Data Protection Authority must be consulted.
Despite these safeguards, this new element represents a huge departure from the current ePrivacy Directive, since the electronic communications service provider will determine what constitutes a compatible purpose. The proposal comes very close to introducing “legitimate interest” loophole as a legal basis for processing sensitive electronic communications metadata. Formally, the further processing must be subject to the original legal basis, but what this means in the ePrivacy context is not entirely clear, since the main legal basis is a specific provision in the Regulation, such as processing for billing or calculating interconnection payments or maintaining or restoring the security of electronic communications networks.
An example of further processing could be tracking mobile phone users for “smart city” applications such as traffic planning or monitoring travel patterns of tourists via their mobile phone. Even though the purpose of the processing must be obtaining aggregate information, and not targeting individual users, metadata will still be retained for the individual users in identifiable form in order to link existing data records with new data records (using a persistent pseudonymous identifier). Therefore, it becomes a form of voluntary data retention. The mandatory safeguard of pseudonymisation does not prevent the electronic communications service provider from subsequently identifying individual users if law enforcement authorities obtain a court order for access to retained data on individual users.
Communications data only protected in transit
Whereas the text adopted by the European Parliament specifically amends the Commission proposal to ensure that electronic communications data is protected under the ePrivacy Regulation after it has been received, the Council text clarifies that the protection only applies in transit. After the communication has been received by the end-user, the GDPR applies, which gives the service provider much greater flexibility in processing the electronic communication data for other purposes. For a number of modern electronic communications services, storage of electronic communication data on a central server (instead of on the end-user device) is an integral part of the service. An example is the transition from SMS (messages are stored on the phone) to modern messenger services such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger (stored on a central server). This makes it important that the protection under the ePrivacy Regulation applies to electronic communications data after it has been received. The Council text fails to address this urgent need.
The European Parliament introduced a ban on tracking walls, that is the practice of denying users access to a website unless they consent to processing of personal data via cookies (typically tracking for targeted advertising) that is not necessary for providing the service requested.
The Council text goes in the opposite direction by specifically allowing tracking walls in Recital 20 for websites where the content is provided without a monetary payment if the website visitor is presented with an alternative option without this processing (tracking). This could be a subscription to an online news publication. The net effect of this is that personal data will become a commodity that can be traded for access to online news media or other online services. On the issue of tracking walls and coerced consent, the Council ePrivacy text may actually provide a lower level of protection than Article 7(4) of the GDPR, which specifically seeks to prevent that personal data can become the counter-performance for a contract. This is contrary to the stated aim of the ePrivacy Regulation.
Privacy settings and privacy by design
The Commission proposal requires web browsers to offer the option of preventing third parties from storing information in the browser (terminal equipment) or processing information already stored in the browser. An example of this could be an option to block third party cookies. The Council text proposes to delete Article 10 on privacy settings. The effect of this is that fewer users will become aware of privacy settings that protect them from leaking information about their online behaviour to third parties and that software may be placed on the market that does not even offer the user the possibility of blocking data leakage to third parties.
Article 15(1) of the current ePrivacy Directive allows Member States to require data retention in national law. Under the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Digital Rights Ireland (joined cases C-293/12 and C-594/12) and Tele2 (joined cases C-203/15 and C-698/15), this data retention must be targeted rather than general and undifferentiated (blanket data retention). In the Commission proposal for the ePrivacy Regulation, Article 11 on restrictions is very similar to Article 15(1) of the current Directive.
In the Council text, Article 2(2)(aa) excludes activities concerning national security and defence from the scope of the ePrivacy Regulation. This includes processing performed by electronic communications service providers when assisting competent authorities in relation to national security or defence, for example retaining metadata (or even communications content) that would otherwise be erased or not generated in the first place. The effect of this is that data retention for national security purposes would be entirely outside the scope of the ePrivacy Regulation and, potentially, the case law of the CJEU on data retention. This circumvents a key part of the Tele2 ruling where the CJEU notes (para 73) that the protection under the ePrivacy Directive would be deprived of its purpose if certain restrictions on the rights to confidentiality of communication and data protection are excluded from the scope of the Directive.
If data retention (or any other processing) for national security purposes is outside the scope of the ePrivacy Regulation, it is unclear whether such data retention is instead subject to the GDPR, and must satisfy the conditions of GDPR Article 23 (which is very similar to Article 11 of the proposed ePrivacy Regulation), or whether it is completely outside the scope of EU law. The Council text would therefore create substantial legal uncertainty for data retention in Member States’ national law, undoubtedly to the detriment of the fundamental rights of many European citizens.
Proposal for a Regulation concerning the respect for private life and the protection of personal data in electronic communications and repealing Directive 2002/58/EC – Examination of the Presidency text (20.09.2018)
e-Privacy: What happened and what happens next (29.11.2017)
EU Member States fight to retain data retention in place despite CJEU rulings (02.05.2018)
EU Council considers undermining ePrivacy (25.07.2018)
Civil society letter to WP TELE on the ePrivacy Regulation (24.09.2018)
(Contribution by Jesper Lund, EDRi member IT-Pol, Denmark)