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MEPs vote to update 'cookie law' despite ad industry pressure

Justice committee backs ePrivacy proposals by narrow majority

European legislation that aims to put over-the-top services on a level pegging with their more traditional telecoms counterparts, and gives users more rights over websites tracking them, has been approved by a committee of MEPs.

The proposed ePrivacy rules, which will update a directive that was last amended in 2009, have been passed by the European Parliament's justice committee (LIBE), with 31 in favour and 24 against.

However, the legislation faces a tough fight as centre-right MEPs spoke out against it, claiming it would "stifle innovation and threaten the availability of free online services".

Central to the argument is the power of the advertising lobby, as the agreed rules give users the right to object to being tracked when they use a website, and even if a user refuses to accept cookies they must still be allowed access to the site.

The new rules, which have been extended to include over-the-top services like WhatsApp, will cover both the content of communications and metadata related to the locations, timing, duration and type of communication.

The legislation aims to make it easier for users to give and withdraw consent by allowing it to be done with browser settings instead of cookie pop-ups.

The approval of LIBE's text has been welcomed by left-wing MEPs, with Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht saying that users "must be able to trust that their surfing and communication behaviour will not be evaluated or passed on".

But the proposals have invoked the ire of some firms and advertisers, who argue that it equates to giving away content for free.

"News and other online services rely on data-driven, ad-funded business models to finance the creation of content," said Townsend Feehan, chief exec of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe. "Content that must be given away for nothing will ultimately end up being worth nothing."

MEPs in the European Conservatives and Reformists party have responded similarly, with civil liberties spokesman Dan Dalton saying that the vote "gets the balance all wrong”" and risks the future of online services.

He argued that the new rules will stop companies gathering as much data on people, which is a large chunk of funding, especially for startups.

"If I were an app developer for a startup faced with this prospect I don't doubt I would be considering a career change, or at least a move to the US where their privacy and data protection rules would allow me access to the data to develop new, innovative products for consumers out there," he said in a blog post.

The tough fight may not yet be over for the legislation, as it must still gain the support of member states when it is voted on in the whole of Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg next week, before it can enter into negotiations with the Council. ®

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