UK minister pushes data retention laws

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has dismissed suggestions that new Europe-wide laws that require companies to store telecommunications data to help in the hunt for terrorists would impose excessive costs on industry.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Straw said that while there would be a cost to industry from the planned legislation “it is a cost we should pay,” referring to last week’s public transport bombings in London.

Straw was commenting on planned new rules, currently under discussion in the 25-member E.U., which would require firms to keep data that could be accessed by police and intelligence services to trace terrorism suspects.

The issue will be discussed at an emergency meeting of E.U. justice and home affairs ministers on Wednesday that was called by the U.K. after the bombings in London Thursday, which killed over 50 people. The U.K. is chairing E.U. meetings for the next six months under the Union’s rotating presidency.

Straw also rejected claims from industry groups about the cost of the measures. “If the issue is money, costs will be less than they [the companies] say,” Straw said. He added that in any case mobile phone operators and ISPs (Internet service providers) weren’t the “poorest companies in the world.”

Data retention rules have shot back to the top of the E.U.’s antiterrorism agenda following the London bombings. U.K. Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said that agreeing on E.U.-wide data retention rules that would allow law enforcement authorities to gain access to the data in the hunt for terrorists are a key priority. He told the British Broadcasting Corp.: “Telecommunications records, whether of telephones or of e-mails, which record what calls were made from what number to another number at what time are of very important use for intelligence.”

E.U. governments have been discussing a proposal on data retention rules first submitted last year after the Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 people. Under that plan, firms would have to keep data for at least one year with a maximum storage period of three years.

However, phone operators and ISPs argue that the rules would impose an unreasonable cost on them and that the data would be impossible to obtain in some cases.

Richard Nash, of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA), said that the proposals currently under discussion would “destroy” service providers business model because of the problems caused by having to collect and store the data.

Under the current proposal, providers of fixed line and mobile services and SMS (short messaging services) and ISPs would have to keep communication traffic data for at least one year and up to a maximum of three years. The rules apply to data such as call time, duration and destination but not content.

The U.K. aims to get a deal on the rules in October.

But the European Commission and the European Parliament are objecting to the current proposal for a several reasons including concerns about the impact on industry, data protection worries and doubts about the data’s value to law enforcement agencies.

In the coming weeks, the Commission — the E.U.’s executive body — is planning to present its own proposal, which would try to address some of these concerns. E.U. Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini said on Monday that phone data should be kept for one year while Internet data should be stored for six months.

But there are fears that the Commission’s plan would take too long to implement because the European Parliament would have to be consulted.

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