EU Launches Case Against the UK over Phorm

The Union is worried about personal data protection

By Tudor Vieru on April 27th, 2009 12:24 GMT
The European Commission has recently begun an infringement proceeding against the United Kingdom over the way the Phorm advertising company conducts its online surveillance of Internet buyers' customs. Following extensive discussions with British authorities in the field, and numerous complaints from users in the UK, the EU has decided to start the action in a bid to ensure that the confidentiality of traffic remains intact, and that the EU ePrivacy and personal data protection rules, which all European countries must abide by, remain standing.

“Technologies like Internet behavioral advertising can be useful for businesses and consumers, but they must be used in a way that complies with EU rules. These rules are there to protect the privacy of citizens and must be rigorously enforced by all Member States. We have been following the Phorm case for some time and have concluded that there are problems in the way the UK has implemented parts of EU rules on the confidentiality of communications,” Viviane Reding, who is the Telecoms Commissioner for the EU, says in a press release.

“I call on the UK authorities to change their national laws and ensure that national authorities are duly empowered and have proper sanctions at their disposal to enforce EU legislation on the confidentiality of communications. This should allow the UK to respond more vigorously to new challenges to ePrivacy and personal data protection such as those that have arisen in the Phorm case. It should also help reassure UK consumers about their privacy and data protection while surfing the Internet,” the official also adds in the brief.

Under a European directive, member states are forced by law to ensure that Internet users' personal behavior and traffic patterns on the World Wide Web are not being surveyed or intercepted without their express permission. The guideline on privacy and electronic communication also states that users' consent needs to be “freely given, specific and informed.” The rules also stipulate that an independent authority needs to be in charge of supervising Phorm's behavior. In other words, the advertising company cannot be its own watchdog.

Depending on how the UK decides to reply to the Commission's warnings, the country could even be brought in front of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which can decide penalties to be paid until authorities resolve the situation in a satisfactory manner. Experts are still unsure whether England will face prosecution in this matter, but say that all the answers the UK has sent back to EU letters expressing concern over Phorm have proven a lack of structure in the way the island nation chooses to implement the EU directives on communication safety.
A picture of how Phorm's data-collecting service works
   A picture of how Phorm's data-collecting service works
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