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EU votes to strengthen privacy rules for online services, including WhatsApp

Skype and WhatsApp are two of the services that could soon be subject to new privacy rules that put limits on how they can track users.

A vote was taken on on Thursday to support the revised ‘ePrivacy’ proposal, which brings the regulations for internet-based firms and services like Google, Hotmail and WhatsApp in line with those faced by telecoms operators.

Services like Skype are not currently affected by EU communications privacy regulations, because they are data services running on an internet connection, rather than native functions of the network.

One of the major requirements of the regulation is the guarantee of confidentiality of customers’ communications, and the need to ask for users’ consent before they are tracked online (which is key to producing targeted advertising).

Cookies consent

Since 2012, websites have had to tell visitors that they are using cookies to track their activity, but the updated ePrivacy regulation adds stricter opt-in rules. If the vote passes (see below), opt-out will be the default. This means that websites will need to ask for permission to install a tracking cookie on a user’s browser.

In addition, websites will not be allowed to block users from accessing their content if they do not opt in.

Online advertisers criticised the move. Townsend Feehan, CEO of industry associate IAB Europe, told Reuters, “News and other online services rely on data-driven, ad-funded business models to finance the creation of content… Content that must be given away for nothing will ultimately end up being worth nothing.”

Centre-right MEPs voted against the proposal, saying that it favoured privacy over innovation. However, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) supported the vote. Director-general Monique Goyens said:

“Consumers should not be forced to give up their privacy when they visit a website, send an email or purchase something online.

“It’s alarming that the online companies who claim to be the trend-setters and the engine of the digital economy cling to an advertising business model based on snooping on people.”

The vote is not final, as the European Parliament still needs to find a compromise with member states, who are divided on the topic.

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