The European parliament is today expected to back a controversial new law on data-protection in a vote, in the face of opposition from telecommunications companies, ISPs (Internet service providers), and civil-rights groups.

Last December, the 15 European national governments inserted a clause into the draft law. It required telecoms companies and ISPs to retain information on their customers’ log of phone calls or email and Internet connections, beyond the period such information is normally held. Information is routinely held for billing purposes and to assist police investigations.

Current European data protection laws say that such data may be stored for no longer than the billing period. They also restrict law enforcement officials’ rights of access to people’s data.

Compromise The two biggest parties in the European Parliament (the Socialist Party and the centre-right European Peoples’ Party) have moved from opposition to the proposals. They have agreed to a compromise that “goes a long way in granting the national governments what they want,” said Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch.

The current proposal states that online and telephone surveillance of citizens by law enforcement officials should be appropriate, proportionate, and limited in length. Human Rights are also proposed in the compromise ruling.

Bunyan warned that, in spite of these conditions, the law will still “pave the way for blanket surveillance of individuals.” He added that it is “a myth to say that this is needed in order to tackle terrorism.”

Some law enforcement officials, including British police officers, have called for the storage of seven years of customer data by telecom providers and ISPs.

Spam European parliamentarians are expected to fall into line with the wishes of the national governments on banning spam, or unsolicited email. The socialist and EPP parties have agreed to the opt-in approach favoured by the member states. This approach forbids random spamming and forces marketers to get permission from users before sending email. However, online suppliers will still be able to send emails to existing customers.

The Parliament and the national governments are in broad agreement on how to treat cookies – small data files stored on computers and used by many Web sites to track user-visits. The parliamentarians are likely to vote in favour of permitting free use of cookies, as long as clear information about their content and purpose is provided to users.