European telecommunications ministers voted Thursday to ban unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, and to empower consumers to prevent unauthorized snooping on their use of the Internet.
The spam ban is part of a draft law on privacy in electronic communications that in turn is part of a general overhaul of EU telecommunications law. Thursday's decision marked a breakthrough on spam, which had divided EU governments and the European Parliament for months.
Belgian Telecommunications Minister Rik Daems, who announced the decision, said it is now "very clear" that the EU would require a recipient's explicit consent for the receipt of any commercial e-mail. "We go for the opt-in solution without any reservations," he said.
Ministers failed to reach a political agreement on the creation of clearer pan-European rules for the regulation of the bloc's telecom markets in general, however, and refused requests by the U.S. government and European law-enforcement authorities to allow for greater routine retention of European citizens' electronic data.
Daems said resolution of a debate over who has the last word in future telecom-related disputes now rests largely with the European Parliament, which is scheduled to consider the issue next week. Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of the year, still hopes to reach a compromise on the issue by then.
Consumer groups cheered the decision by representatives of the 15 EU member states to ban spam, a problem that the European Commission says costs European consumers 10 billion euros ($8.8 billion) a year. The ban would exempt companies that already operate electronic mailing lists from the requirement to go back and seek permission for everyone on record, but would require the explicit consent of a recipient for inclusion in any new distribution lists.
Ministers also confirmed an earlier decision to ban the sending of unsolicited text messages to mobile phones, and said companies that want to keep track of the identity and activities of people who use their Web sites should ask for those people's permission first. "We think the council [of ministers] has done a really good job for consumers this time," said Caroline Hayat, spokeswoman for the European Consumers' Organization. "We hope the European Parliament will follow this example."
European consumers, who are avid users of the text-messaging services provided by their phone companies, have warned that anything short of a ban would leave them exposed to a wave of spam on their mobile phones.
The European Parliament has supported a ban on mobile-phone spam, but voted to leave it up to EU governments to decide how to deal with e-mail spam. Erkki Liikanen, the European commissioner responsible for telecom policy, said Thursday's ministerial decision now clears the way for a speedy resolution of the debate. "member states prefer a harmonized solution," he said.
European phone companies, for their part, were less enthusiastic about the decisions -- and lack thereof.
Michael Bartholomew, director of the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, an umbrella group representing Europe's biggest phone companies, welcomed the decision not to allow greater retention of data such as telephone and Internet activity logs, which was seen as potentially costly. "This is good news for us," he said. "We're happy there were no mandatory data retention periods imposed."
Current EU law generally requires the destruction of any electronic data not required for billing purposes, except in cases where law-enforcement authorities had specifically requested that the data be kept.
Bartholomew was critical of the decision to ban both spam and electronic messages to mobile phones. "A lot of our companies are afraid that there are much more and more detailed rules than before," particularly regarding the EU's embattled mobile-phone sector, he said.
European pay-television companies, meanwhile, welcomed ministers' decision not to mandate a technical standard for digital television. The European Parliament has twice sought to introduce such a standard in the context of the telecom package, but ministers have twice rejected it.
Differences in the ministers' and Parliament's approach to spam, Internet tracking, data retention and digital television standards now need to be addressed in a conciliation process before the parliament can formally endorse the new EU law on telecommunications data-protection policy.
Sheila Cassells, head of economic policy for British Sky Broadcasting Ltd., the U.K.'s biggest pay-TV operator, urged members of the parliament meeting next week to reject the proposed amendments.