EU officials downplay music-player concerns

European data protection watchdogs have played down reports that they might add music-playing software to a list of PC devices they fear breach E.U. data protection laws.

Microsoft Corp.’s Media Player and its main rival, RealNetworks Inc.’s RealPlayer, are reported to have raised concerns because they relay users’ listening habits back via related Web sites to central databases. This information is gathered even when users listen to music from a CD while the PC is online, and the user is never informed that the information is being tracked.

An official at the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive branch, said that all computer devices that gather information about the user are a cause for concern among the representatives of the 15 national data protection agencies in the E.U., but that the main concern remains Microsoft’s .Net Passport service, which offers users a single log-on to a variety of Web-based applications.

“The priority is .Net Passport, but these other devices that gather information might also be examined closely,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

But the national authorities knew nothing about any concrete plan to investigate music playing software. Anne-Christine Lacoste, joint councillor at Belgium’s data protection office, said there are no specific plans to investigate music players, just broad research into all types of software that gather information about the computer user. “What concerns us at the moment is .Net Passport,” she said.

Iain Bourne, strategic policy manager at the British Information Commissioner’s office and Ronny Downes, deputy data protection commissioner for the Republic of Ireland, both said they were unaware of any specific plan to investigate music players.

Waltraut Kotschy, senior data protection official in the Austrian Data Protection Office, said that the office had received one complaint from a consumer about Media Player Version 8. Though the office will take action if it finds that there is justification for the complainant’s concerns, it has no immediate plans for an official inquiry, she said.

The national authorities will decide whether or not to open an investigation into Microsoft’s .Net Passport at a meeting on July 1 and 2.

“The UK will probably support an investigation with a small ‘i,’ ” Bourne said. “There’s a lot of talk about a huge Microsoft database out there with information about people’s online buying habits, but there is no evidence Passport raises complex technical issues and civil liberties issues. We want to find out what is going on,” he said.

Music playing software is not on the agenda for the July 1 and 2 meeting, said the Commission official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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