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Revised UK interception of communications laws address EU privacy concerns

The European Commission has dropped infringement proceedings it had brought against the UK for failure to properly implement EU laws on the interception of communications.26 Jan 2012

Changes made to the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) last year have addressed concerns that the privacy of internet users in the country was not being adequately protected, the European Commission has said.

"The Commission believes UK law and institutions are now well-equipped to enforce the privacy rights of UK users," it said in a statement.

In 2009 the Commission launched legal proceedings against the UK claiming that it had failed to fully implement two Directives aimed at protecting privacy, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive (ePrivacy Directive) and the Data Protection Directive. In 2010 the proceedings were escalated when the Commission referred the UK to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the claimed failings of UK law.

The Commission's decision had been prompted by complaints it received from BT customers after it conducted unannounced targeted advert trials through a software company, Phorm. Phorm used its technology to intercept and monitor the web activity of BT customers to help match adverts to the interests of users.

Under the ePrivacy Directive organisations require individuals' consent in order to intercept and track their online activity. The Directive takes its meaning of consent from EU data protection laws which currently state that consent must be "freely given, specific and informed".

Last year the UK Government amended RIPA to change the requirements for obtaining consent to communication interceptions.

Under the old RIPA regime there only needed to be 'reasonable grounds' to accept consent had been given to allow communications to be intercepted without a warrant. However, that rule was scrapped and replaced by new provisions meaning that it is now only legal to intrude on private communications if you have a warrant or both the sender and recipient of information agree that it is acceptable, even if it is done unintentionally.

The Act does allow telecoms firms to unintentionally intercept communications in line with RIPA if it "takes place for purposes connected with the provision or operation of that service or with the enforcement, in relation to that service, of any enactment relating to the use of postal services or telecommunications services."

New powers were also handed to the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IoCC) granting it the authority to impose fines of up to £50,000 for unlawful interceptions.

The changes were sufficient for the Commission to announce an end to the infringement proceedings it had brought against the UK.

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