Digital Agenda: EU Commission refers UK to ECJ over privacy and personal data protection

October 4th 2010 by James Goudie QC

The European Commission has decided (IP/10/1215) to refer the United Kingdom to the ECJ for not fully implementing EU rules on the confidentiality of electronic communications such as e-mail or internet browsing. Specifically, the Commission considers that UK law does not comply with EU rules on consent to interception and on enforcement by supervisory authorities. The EU rules in question are laid down in the ePrivacy Directive 2002/58/EC and the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC. The infringement procedure was opened in April 2009 (IP/09/570), following complaints from UK internet users notably with regard to targeted advertising based on analysis of users’ internet traffic. These complaints were handled by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK personal data protection authority, and the police forces responsible for investigating cases of unlawful interception of communications. The Commission previously requested the UK authorities in October 2009 (IP/09/1626) to amend their rules to comply with EU law.

The Commission considers that existing UK law governing the confidentiality of electronic communications is in breach of the UK’s obligations both under the ePrivacy Directive and under the Data Protection Directive in three specific areas:

  •  there is no independent national authority to supervise the interception of some communications, although the establishment of such authority is required under the ePrivacy and Data Protection Directives, in particular to hear complaints regarding interception of communications
  • current UK law authorises interception of communications not only where the persons concerned have consented to interception but also when the person intercepting the communications has ‘reasonable grounds for believing’ that consent to do so has been given. These UK provisions do not comply with EU rules defining consent as “freely given, specific and informed indication of a person’s wishes”
  • current UK law prohibiting and providing sanctions in case of unlawful interception are limited to ‘intentional’ interception only, whereas EU law requires Member States to prohibit and to ensure sanctions against any unlawful interception regardless of whether committed intentionally or not.