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Industry Groups Amp Up Lobby Campaign To Topple ePrivacy Bill


By Catherine Stupp

(EurActiv) — Dozens of industry associations have made a last-ditch effort to water down the draft ePrivacy legislation before national telecoms ministers gather to discuss the file next week in Luxembourg.

Negotiators on the ePrivacy bill were hit with a flurry of complaints on Thursday (31 May) as they geared up for another round of negotiations on the deadlocked legislation.

A group of 54 business associations, including groups from the technology, advertising and car industries, sent a letter to ministers from the 28 EU countries asking them to put a stop to the bill, which will “greatly limit the processing of a broad array of both personal and non-personal data”.

The letter was signed by large associations including DigitalEurope, which represents tech firms like Google and Apple, and car manufacturer lobby group ACEA.

Discussions on the ePrivacy bill have been hampered by sharp divisions between national governments and the European Parliament’s political groups since the European Commission first proposed the legal overhaul in January 2017.

There has been mounting pressure on national governments to come up with a compromise on the legislation. MEPs approved their version of the bill last autumn, and negotiations between the Parliament, national diplomats in the Council and the Commission can only start after ministers agree on the file.

The Commission is losing patience. Earlier this month, the EU executive published a document before a European Council summit urging leaders to “conclude negotiations as soon as possible on the ePrivacy regulation”.

The ePrivacy overhaul, along with slow-moving negotiations over a contentious copyright bill, are the two most prominent hurdles standing in the way of the Commission’s goal to have all of its outstanding technology bills approved by the end of 2018.

Negotiators have gotten used to the tidal wave of lobbying efforts brought on by the ePrivacy discussions. One Commission official close to the file recently told reporters that the backlash was similar to industry groups’ reactions to the GDPR, the EU’s watershed data protection law that took effect last Friday (25 May).

The ePrivacy bill includes measures aimed at guaranteeing the privacy of communications, and will apply to traditional phone calls and messages as well as digital services like WhatsApp.

One of the industry groups’ main complaints about ePrivacy is that it will cause conflict with the GDPR’s new privacy safeguards and limit how companies can process personal and non-personal data. They want negotiators to slow down discussions on the file until regulators see what legal conflicts the GDPR might raise now that those rules have kicked in.

“Rather than complementing the GDPR, the proposal replaces and contradicts many of the fundamental checks and balances of the EU’s data protection framework,” the associations’ letter said.

Privacy campaigners have slammed the industry groups’ lobby campaign as a tactic to delay negotiations.

Joe McNamee, director of the NGO European Digital Rights, criticised the associations’ argument that the legislation will harm their business. He said the backlash was similar to the drawn-out lobbying bid to water down the GDPR before it was approved in 2016.

“Running two consecutive campaigns with the argument ‘the end is nigh’ is absurd and is being perceived as absurd,” McNamee said.

The Commission and a group of MEPs who are pushing for negotiations on the ePrivacy file to move forward have argued that a recent scandal the harvesting of Facebook users’ data proved there is a need for a tough new EU-level privacy law. In March, The Observer and The New York Times reported that consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica had analysed 87 million Facebook users’ data and used it without their knowledge for political campaign work.

Ministers have been dragging their feet in negotiations for more than a year. But they may find that the political climate has shifted when they sit down to discuss the legislation at the end of next week.

On Monday (4 June), they will have a fresh reminder of the data scandal when Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie testifies on the incident in the European Parliament.

Elizabeth Denham, the UK data protection regulator who is leading an investigation of the incident, is also scheduled to attend the special hearing.

The scandal has caused outrage in Europe and prompted calls from MEPs and national legislators for increased regulation of social media companies. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologised for the data breach during a meeting with top MEPs two weeks ago.

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