EP calls for a safer Internet and better services for consumers

The European Parliament adopted a legislative report at first-reading aimed at providing wider access to telecoms services, more information for consumers and stronger data protection. All the major political groups in Parliament agreed a compromise before the plenary vote which does not alter the main goal of the draft legislation, but they greatly clarify its aims, notably as regards protection of privacy and fundamental rights.

In his report on the directive on universal service requirements for telecoms operators, MEP Malcolm Harbour (EPP-ED, UK), introduces Parliament's amendments to strengthen the obligations for operators to provide a minimum service of specific quality at an affordable price for everyone. This issue of the so-called Telecoms reform was put in the Agenda for debate at the European Parliament's plenary held September 23rd.

Under current EU law, this "universal service" includes public phone services, free emergency numbers (the European number 112 and national numbers), an information service and phone directory, and sufficient geographical coverage with public payphones and other telecom access points. The EP wants the Commission by autumn 2008 to submit plans to include mobile phone and broadband in the scope of universal service rules.

Data protection, network security and preventive information

Turning to the legislation on personal data privacy in the telecoms sector, the existing directive already harmonises some national rules on the protection of fundamental rights in this area.  MEPs want it to clearly cover the right to privacy and confidentiality as well as to security of information technology systems. Data protection rules must cover private and not just public networks, so data stored on social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace will be covered by the rules.
Besides, a security violation such as the theft of a client list must be notified to the regulator by the operator.  Users must be warned of any infringement of their personal data if the case is serious enough to warrant it, and the perpetrator could be prosecuted by the Member State. Other amendments by Parliament would boost protection against spam, cookies, viruses, trojans and spyware.

As to prevent unlawful behaviours, consumers must be given information on ways of protecting their personal data. All subscribers must be given information by operators on unlawful activities such as the distribution of content that infringes copyright.
Community law does not define what content is lawful or harmful, nor any penalties, since this is up to each Member State.  However, all consumers must be informed of national rules on this.

Parliament's political groups had already reached a compromise on certain issues, such as access to the single European emergency number 112 which has already been the object of awareness campaigns in summer 2008, access to electronic communications as a universal service, the number portability, the transparency of tariffs and prices charged and the network neutrality principle.

The report was adopted with 548 votes in favour, 88 against and 14 abstentions.

Legislative reform on universal service requirements for telecoms

In June 2006, the Commission presented a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the functioning of the regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services. The report noted that the framework had yielded considerable benefits for citizens, consumers, and businesses in terms of better choice, lower prices and more innovation, but there was room for improvement in the field of consumer protection and security to ensure that it kept pace with technological developments  and remained effective for the coming decade.

In order to ensure the safeguarding of universal service and users’ rights, as well as the protection of personal data, the Community rules need to be adapted with the dual aim of:

  1. Strengthening and improving consumer protection and user rights in the electronic communication sector, through, amongst other aspects, giving consumers more information about prices and supply conditions, and facilitating access to and use of e-communications, including emergency services, for disabled users.
  2. Enhancing the protection of individuals’ privacy and personal data in the electronic communications sector, in particular through strengthened security-related provisions and improved enforcement mechanisms.

The proposed directive adapts the regulatory framework by strengthening certain consumers’ and users’ rights (in particular with a view to improving accessibility and promoting an inclusive Information Society), and ensuring that electronic communications are trustworthy, secure and reliable and provide a high level of protection for individuals’ privacy and personal data. The proposal does not alter the current scope or concept of universal service in the EU.

This proposal deals with the changes to be made to the Universal Service (2002/22/EC) and the Directive on privacy and electronic communications (2002/58/EC).