European ministers agree on spam ban, cookie rules

European telecommunication ministers agreed Thursday that unsolicited e-mail and wireless text messages should be prohibited under a new data protection law. They also agreed to allow leeway for law enforcement to access logs of e-mail and telephone traffic.

The positions put the ministers at odds with the European Parliament, which two weeks ago voted in favor of tighter controls on law enforcement access to these logs, and against a ban on spam.

Belgium's telecommunication minister Rik Daems, who chaired Thursday's meeting, would not reveal the exact wording of the agreed position. He warned that the negotiations on the issue with Parliament will be "tough."

The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament are the two legislative bodies with power to make European Union laws.

EU heads of state agreed last year on an aggressive legislation drive to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world within 10 years. One element was to settle telecom legislation, including data protection issues, by the end of 2001.

The ministers also agreed on a legal basis for the use of cookies, calling for Web sites to give consumers prior notice that they are placing cookies on their PCs, and banning the use of spy cookies, which extract information from a PC and send it to the site placing them.

Two years ago, the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, made it mandatory for service providers to destroy Internet and telephone call logs after the end of every billing period. Commissioner Erkki Liikanen said Thursday that the Council's decision to allow greater law enforcement access to data still remains within the scope of what is allowed under the European Convention on Human Rights. But he added that uncertainty remains concerning what is an "appropriate and proportionate" retention of data.

Daems has until the middle of next week to find a compromise between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. If he fails, the Parliament will vote on the issue in a plenary session and will almost certainly reject the Council's Thursday decision. This would push the two legislative bodies into a conciliation process, chaired by the European Commission.

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