By Julia Fioretti
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers voted on Thursday to bring online messaging and email services such as WhatsApp and Skype into the scope of tough telecoms privacy rules that will restrict how they can track users.
The vote in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee was hailed as a step forward by privacy activists but heavily criticized by industry for being too restrictive and inconsistent with a separate data protection regulation.
Under the reworked "ePrivacy" proposal, telecoms operators and internet players will have to guarantee the confidentiality of the customers' communications and ask for users' consent before tracking them online to serve them personalized ads.
The rules aim to provide a level playing field between telecoms firms and online players such as WhatsApp, Google and Skype. Currently only telecoms companies are subject to the ePrivacy law.
MEPs strengthened the privacy protections in the original European Commission proposal by requiring web browsers to have their default settings as not allowing personalized online advertising based on browsing habits. Instead, users will be asked to opt in to allow websites to place cookies on their browsers.
Cookies are placed on web surfers' computers and contain bits of information about the user, such as what other sites they have visited or where they are logging in from. They are widely used by companies to deliver targeted ads to users.
Websites will also be forbidden from preventing users from accessing their content if they do not consent to being tracked, a measure that was criticized by online advertisers as forcing websites to offer content for free.
“News and other online services rely on data-driven, ad-funded business models to finance the creation of content,” said Townsend Feehan, CEO of IAB Europe, the industry association of online advertisers.
"Content that must be given away for nothing will ultimately end up being worth nothing."
Thursday's deal is not final as the Parliament will need to find a compromise with member states, who are still divided on the issue.
Additionally, MEPs from the largest center-right group in the Brussels-based legislature voted against the proposal, saying it was weighted too heavily for privacy, restricting digital innovation.
However, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) praised the vote in the parliamentary committee.
"Consumers should not be forced to give up their privacy when they visit a website, send an email or purchase something online," said Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC.
"It's alarming that the online companies who claim to be the trend-setters and the engine of the digital economy cling to an advertising business model based on snooping on people."
(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)