WhatsApp's logo on a smartphone. Picture: EPA/RITCHIE B TONGO
WhatsApp's logo on a smartphone. Picture: EPA/RITCHIE B TONGO

Brussels — Online messaging and e-mail services such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Gmail will face tough new rules on how they can track users under a proposal presented by the EU executive on Tuesday.

The web players will have to guarantee the confidentiality of their customers’ conversations and ask for their consent before tracking them online to serve them personalised ads.

The proposal by the European Commission extends some rules that now apply only to telecoms operators to web firms offering calls and messages using the internet, known as "Over-The-Top" services. It seeks to close a perceived regulatory gap between the telecoms industry and mainly US internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

Tuesday’s proposal would allow telecom companies to use customer metadata — such as the duration and location of calls — to provide additional services and make more money, something they are barred from doing under the current rules.

However, the telecoms industry said the proposal still imposed stricter obligations on them than on web companies.

"Unlike others, telcos risk being prevented from expanding consumer choice by using traffic and location data for big data analytics and IoT [Internet of Things]," said Lise Fuhr, director-general of Etno, the European telecoms lobby.

The review of the so-called e-privacy law will also require web browsers to ask users upon installation whether they want to allow websites to place cookies on their browsers.

A previous leaked version would have forced browsers to set the default settings as not allowing cookies.

"It’s up to our people to say yes or no," said Andrus Ansip, commission vice-president for the digital single market.

Online advertisers have warned that overly strict rules would undermine many websites’ ability to fund themselves and keep offering free services.

"It will particularly hit those companies that ... find it most difficult to talk directly to end users and what I mean by that is tech companies that operate in the background and sort of facilitate the buying and selling of advertising rather than the ones that the user directly engages with," said Yves Schwarzbart, head of policy and regulatory affairs at the Internet Advertising Bureau.


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