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WhatsApp and Skype May Be More Heavily Regulated in the EU

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The Facebook and WhatsApp app icons are displayed on an iPhone on February 19, 2014 in San Francisco.Photo illustration by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

Internet-based services such as Microsoft’s (MSFT) Skype and Facebook’s (FB) WhatsApp often act as a replacement for traditional voice and SMS services, but the online giants and the old-school telecoms operators don’t currently have to play by the same rules in Europe.

That’s about to change. According to documents quoted by the Financial Times, the European Commission will next month propose bringing the Skypes and WhatsApps of this world into the same regulatory fold as their more traditional rivals.

That will mean the online players having to beef up the security of their services, while agreeing to new confidentiality rules that may limit what they can do with the data they hold on their customers’ communications. They might also have to provide access to emergency-service numbers in future.

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The Commission indicated in May that it wanted to create a level playing field between the generations of communications providers, but its consultation into the new rules only closed in July.

According to the FT, a formal announcement will come in September, followed by the new proposals later this year. The changes will come in the form of a replacement for the 2002 “e-privacy directive” that EU countries had to transpose into their national laws.

The directive also restricted telecoms operators’ use of the copious location data that they hold on their customers—a restriction that the carriers have been desperate to shake off, pointing out that their online rivals can monetize such data much more freely.

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It’s not yet clear which elements of the 2002 directive will be extended to cover online “over the top” services, and which will simply fall away—the Commission has certainly claimed to be keen on deregulation where possible.

Once the Commission has made its proposals, a lengthy negotiation process involving the European Parliament and the member states will ensue. According to the FT, the Brexit-bound U.K. will be at the table but with diminished influence—an important point, as the U.K. has always opposed putting heavy new regulations on the online players.