Europe’s concerns over behavioural advertising intensify

The European Commission (EC) has referred the UK to the European Union’s Court of Justice for failing to comply with Europe’s rules on internet privacy.

The move follows complaints from internet users over BTs trials using Phorm technology in 2006 and 2007. The software can be used to track internet users’ browsing history in order to deliver relevant adverts.

Internet users complained to the UK authorities over the use of the software, which they say made them a target for behavioural advertising campaigns. Campaigners suggested the technology allowed companies to “snoop” on internet users.

The complaints were handled by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK personal data protection authority and the police forces responsible for investigating cases of unlawful interception of communications. No laws were found to have been broken.

However, the EC has questioned whether the UK’s laws are robust enough. The Commission considers that UK law does not comply with EU rules on “consent to interception and on enforcement by supervisory authorities”. This has now led to an ’infringement procedure’, which could result in a fine.

European laws state that EU countries must ensure the confidentiality of people’s electronic communications like email or internet browsing by prohibiting their unlawful interception and surveillance without the user’s consent. The EC says these rules have not been fully put in place in the national law of the UK.

“People’s privacy and the integrity of their personal data in the digital world is not only an important matter, it is a fundamental right, protected by European law. That is why the Commission is vigilant in ensuring that EU rules and rights are put in place,” said EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding in October last year. At the time she called on the UK to amend its rules and comply with EU law.

The EC says this has yet to happen and has now referred the case to the Courts. Specifically, the EC noted the absence of an independent national authority to supervise inception of communications.

Campaigners also believe that Phorm showed there are “big holes” in UK privacy laws. The Open Rights Groups says: “In particular, the UK needs an official body to deal with citizens’ complaints about illegal commercial interception and enforce our legal privacy rights.”

BT scrapped the Phorm system in July last year. Meanwhile, Phorm recently recorded a $15.6m (£9.9m) pre-tax loss for the six months to the end of June.

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