The explosion in internet use over the last few years has prompted the European Union to pass a wide range of legislation in the hope of increasing the benefits of this new technology while protecting the public and business from its unwanted spin-offs. The European Parliament has played an active part in this legislation, especially in the introduction of a new .eu top level domain name and in curbing spam, strengthening data protection and increasing the budget for a programme to improve network security.
Since the advent of internet addressing, Top Level Domains (TLD) have been based on letters such as .int, .com, .net and .org. Some 20 million addresses have been registered under these abbreviations but in recent years there has been a demand for an .eu domain name to promote a European identity and reflect the existence of the EU as a legal area. Thanks to a new EU regulation such a domain has now been created, so EU-based businesses and individuals can use it for their websites and email addresses if they choose. The new domain does not replace existing domains such as .fr, .de and .co.uk but is offered as an alternative. However, given time the .eu domain should become as widespread as .com or .org.
The regulation setting up the .eu TLD provided for a registry to manage the domain. An organisation has since been selected to perform this task: the European Domain Name Registry (EURID), an independent, non-profit making body which will accredit companies to carry out the registrations. Any individual resident in the EU or any company or organisation based in the EU has the right to register .eu domain names. Registrations will be possible from the second half of 2004 but they are to be phased in so as to give holders of prior rights the opportunity to register. The European Commission will lay down rules on speculative and abusive registrations, intellectual property rights and language issues.
Parliament's main contribution to this legislation was to lay down in more detail how the registry should be set up, to make sure it operates fairly, transparently and independently. Parliament also insisted that, in the event of disputes, the registry should provide a mediation and arbitration service either free of charge or on a cost-recovery basis. Lastly, following pressure from MEPs, on-line traders registered under the .eu domain will eventually sign up to a code of conduct and an extrajudicial dispute-resolution scheme, so that consumers gain confidence in the .eu zone.
Stopping spam and making internet shopping easier
Parliament also influenced a directive on data protection and privacy in electronic communications.
On the subject of data protection, MEPs successfully insisted that while Member States should be able to override data protection rules in order to investigate criminal cases or safeguard national or public security, they should only be allowed to do so if the measures are "necessary, appropriate and proportionate" in a democratic society. If Member States wish to preserve data - and under the directive they can do this only for a limited period - their legislation must comply with general principles of EU law as well as the European Human Rights Convention.
Turning to the problem of spam, opinion was initially split within Parliament over ways of combating "unsolicited electronic communications" for direct marketing (including email spam, junk faxes and automatic calling machines). Some MEPs inclined towards an "opt-in" system, requiring customers to give prior consent before firms or organisations could send them such messages. Others preferred an "opt-out" system, which would allow the messages to be sent unsolicited initially, although customers would then have the right to demand their removal from the mailing list. Yet others thought the matter should be left up to each Member State.
Following impassioned debates, MEPs in the end gave broad backing to an "opt-in" system for all these types of electronic message. However, they added a rider saying that, if a company or individual obtains electronic contact details from its customers when selling a product, it may use these details for direct marketing of similar products of its own, provided customers are clearly told they can object easily and free of charge.
In a separate directive, aimed at removing barriers to e-commerce in the EU and laying down standard legislation for internet shopping, MEPs insisted that Member States should make sure that service providers who transmit unsolicited commercial messages consult regularly the opt-out registers kept in each Member State.
Improving network security
Spamming and hacking, in addition to the annoyance they cause, are the most costly problems facing internet users today. Companies and organisations can be devastated by electronic spying or the intrusion of viruses into their networks. To help deal with this issue, the EU has created the Modinis programme for monitoring the eEurope 2005 action plan set up as part of the Lisbon strategy. The programme, running from 2003 to 2005, is designed to help spread best practice in information technology among the Member States, analyse the economic and social consequences of the Information Society and improve network and information security.
Parliament initially supported the Commission's proposal for a budget of 25 million euros for this programme but the Council of Ministers sought to cut this to 20 million. MEPs then accepted a compromise figure of 21 million, which should allow the programme to meet its objectives.