E-Privacy regulations complement data protection laws by setting out privacy rights for electronic communications. The idea being that whilst widespread public access to digital mobile networks and the internet has opened up new possibilities for businesses and users, they have also created new risks for privacy. E-Privacy regulations have been a point of contention within the EU and reform has been expected for some time. On 10 February 2021, 4 years after the European Commission’s initial legislative proposal and to the surprise of many, the European Council reached a compromise agreement on their position on the E-privacy Regulation. What this means for E-privacy rules in the UK remains to be seen. With Brexit behind us, and therefore no obligation to introduce new EU legislation in the UK, but with an adequacy decision pending, and therefore a desire for the UK to align with the EU on data protection, it is hard to say whether or not the UK will choose to implement them. For more information on data protection and a potential adequacy decision after Brexit read our blog.

E-Privacy and PECR

PECR are the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations which comprise the E-privacy regulations in the UK. Their full title is The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. They are derived from European law. PECR have been amended a number of times. The more recent changes were made in 2018, to ban cold-calling of claims management services and to introduce director liability for serious breaches of the marketing rules; and in 2019 to ban cold-calling of pensions schemes in certain circumstances and to incorporate the GDPR definition of consent.

What kind of areas do PECR cover?

PECR cover several areas:

  • Marketing by electronic means, including marketing calls, texts, emails and faxes.
  • The use of cookies or similar technologies that track information about people accessing a website or other electronic service.
  • Security of public electronic communications services.
  • Privacy of customers using communications networks or services as regards traffic and location data, itemised billing, line identification services (eg caller ID and call return), and directory listings.

How does this fit with the UK GDPR?

The UK GDPR sits alongside PECR. PECR rules apply and use the UK GDPR standard of consent (which is a high threshold). This means that if you send electronic marketing or use cookies or similar technologies you must comply with both PECR and the UK GDPR. Unsurprisingly, there is some overlap, given that both aim to protect people’s privacy. Complying with PECR will help you comply with the UK GDPR, and vice versa – but there are some differences. In particular, it’s important to realise that PECR apply even if you are not processing personal data. For example, many of the rules protect companies as well as individuals, and the marketing rules apply even if you cannot identify the person you are contacting.

If you are a network or service provider, Article 95 of the UK GDPR says the UK GDPR does not apply where there are already specific PECR rules. This is to avoid duplication, and means that if you are a network or service provider, you only need to comply with PECR rules (and not the UK GDPR) on:

  • security and security breaches;
  • traffic data;
  • location data;
  • itemised billing; and
  • line identification services.

Electronic and telephone marketing

PECR restrict unsolicited marketing by phone, fax, email, text, or other electronic message. There are different rules for different types of communication. The rules are generally stricter for marketing to individuals than for marketing to companies. Companies will often need specific consent to send unsolicited direct marketing. The best way to obtain valid consent is to ask customers to tick opt-in boxes confirming they are happy to receive marketing calls, texts or emails from you.

E-Privacy: Cookies and similar technologies

Companies must tell people if they set cookies, and clearly explain what the cookies do and why. You must also get the user’s consent. Consent must be actively and clearly given. There is an exception for cookies that are essential to provide an online service at someone’s request (e.g. to remember what’s in their online basket, or to ensure security in online banking). The same rules also apply if you use any other type of technology to store or gain access to information on someone’s device.

Communications networks and services

PECR are not just concerned with marketing by electronic means. They also contain provisions that concern the security of public electronic communications services and the privacy of customers using communications networks or services. Some of these provisions only apply to service providers (e.g. the security provisions) but others apply more widely. For example, the directories provision applies to any organisation wanting to compile a telephone, fax or email directory.

EU Council position on E-Privacy rules

On 10 February 2021, EU member states agreed on a negotiating mandate for revised rules on the protection of privacy and confidentiality in the use of electronic communications services. These updated E-privacy rules will define cases in which service providers are allowed to process electronic communications data or have access to data stored on end-users’ devices. The agreement allows the Portuguese presidency to start talks with the European Parliament on the final text. The agreement included:

  • The regulation will cover electronic communications content transmitted using publicly available services and networks, and metadata related to the communication. Metadata includes, for example, information on location and the time and recipient of communication. It is considered potentially as sensitive as the content itself.
  • As a main rule, electronic communications data will be confidential. Any interference, including listening to, monitoring and processing of data by anyone other than the end-user will be prohibited, except when permitted by the E-privacy regulation.
  • Permitted processing of electronic communications data without the consent of the user includes, for example, ensuring the integrity of communications services, checking for the presence of malware or viruses, or cases where the service provider is bound by EU or member states’ law for the prosecution of criminal offences or prevention of threats to public security.
  • Metadata may be processed for instance for billing, or for detecting or stopping fraudulent use. With the user’s consent, service providers could, for example, use metadata to display traffic movements to help public authorities and transport operators to develop new infrastructure where it is most needed. Metadata may also be processed to protect users’ vital interests, including for monitoring epidemics and their spread or in humanitarian emergencies, in particular natural and man-made disasters.
  • In certain cases, providers of electronic communications networks and services may process metadata for a purpose other than that for which it was collected, even when this is not based on the user’s consent or certain provisions on legislative measures under EU or member state law. This  processing for another purpose must be compatible with the initial purpose, and strong specific safeguards apply to it.
  • As the user’s terminal equipment, including both hardware and software, may store highly personal information, such as photos and contact lists, the use of processing and storage capabilities and the collection of information from the device will only be allowed with the user’s consent or for other specific transparent purposes laid down in the regulation.
  • The end-user should have a genuine choice on whether to accept cookies or similar identifiers. Making access to a website dependent on consent to the use of cookies for additional purposes as an alternative to a paywall will be allowed if the user is able to choose between that offer and an equivalent offer by the same provider that does not involve consenting to cookies.
  • To avoid cookie consent fatigue, an end-user will be able to give consent to the use of certain types of cookies by whitelisting one or several providers in their browser settings. Software providers will be encouraged to make it easy for users to set up and amend whitelists on their browsers and withdraw consent at any moment.

Brexit

PECR continues to apply after the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January 2020. The draft ePR, described in detail above, which is still in the process of being agreed, was not finalised before 31 January 2020 and will therefore not become directly applicable in the UK. Once it is directly applicable to EU member states (which is likely 24 months after its coming into force), the UK will then need to consider to what extent to mirror the new rules. In any case, given that UK companies will continue to process data of EU end users, it will still be necessary to be aware of any discrepancies created by E-privacy reform in the EU.

The deadlock is over

It has long been considered that EU E-privacy regulations have lagged behind the technological progress seen in online marketing techniques and EU negotiations around reform have at times seemed never-ending. The agreement reached by the EU council will therefore be seen as a necessary improvement in legal certainty, although plenty of questions still abound.

PECR in its pre-reformed state will continue to apply in the UK. On 19th February 2021, the European Commission issued its draft adequacy decision that would allow EU-to-UK data transfers. While the E-privacy Regulation is not strictly relevant to the UK’s continued adequacy status, alignment on E-privacy rules would likely be viewed positively by the EU institutions, which could prompt the UK to update its laws in line with the new EU regime. The reforms will of course also be relevant to any UK business that operates in the EU. Even if the Regulation is finally adopted this year, it will not apply for a further two years meaning, these changes will likely not come into effect until 2023 at the earliest.

If you have any questions on E-privacy and data protection, data protection law more generally or on any of the issues raised in this article please get in touch with one of our data protection lawyers.