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E-Privacy Directive

Glossary Contents

The E-Privacy Directive, officially known as Directive 2002/58/EC, is a significant piece of legislation in the European Union (EU) that deals with the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. This directive is an essential part of the broader framework of EU data protection and privacy laws, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The E-Privacy Directive specifically addresses issues related to the confidentiality of electronic communications and the tracking and monitoring of Internet users.

While the E-Privacy Directive is a separate legal instrument from the GDPR, the two are closely linked. Both are concerned with the protection of personal data and privacy, but they apply to different aspects of data processing. The E-Privacy Directive focuses on the specific context of electronic communications, while the GDPR has a broader scope and applies to all forms of personal data processing. This article will provide a comprehensive glossary of the E-Privacy Directive, explaining its key concepts, provisions, and implications in detail.

Background and Purpose of the E-Privacy Directive

The E-Privacy Directive was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in 2002. It was designed to complement the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC, which was the main EU law on data protection at the time. The E-Privacy Directive was specifically aimed at addressing privacy issues related to electronic communications, which were not fully covered by the Data Protection Directive.

The main purpose of the E-Privacy Directive is to protect the privacy of individuals when they use electronic communications services. It sets out specific rules on issues such as the confidentiality of communications, the use of cookies and similar technologies, and the sending of unsolicited marketing communications. The directive applies to all providers of electronic communications services in the EU, including internet service providers, telecommunications companies, and providers of email and messaging services.

Confidentiality of Communications

One of the key provisions of the E-Privacy Directive is the principle of confidentiality of communications. This principle states that any person who sends or receives electronic communications has the right to have their communications kept confidential. This means that electronic communications cannot be listened to, tapped, stored, or otherwise intercepted without the consent of the users involved.

This principle applies to both the content of communications and the related traffic data. Traffic data refers to any data processed for the purpose of transmitting, distributing, or exchanging electronic communications. This includes data such as the sender and recipient of a communication, the time and date of a communication, and the location of the user.

Cookies and Similar Technologies

The E-Privacy Directive also contains specific rules on the use of cookies and similar technologies. Cookies are small files that are stored on a user's device when they visit a website. They are used for various purposes, such as tracking user behaviour, remembering user preferences, and enabling certain website functionalities.

Under the E-Privacy Directive, cookies require the user's informed consent. This means that websites must inform users about the use of cookies and obtain their consent before placing cookies on their devices. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, when cookies are strictly necessary for the provision of a service requested by the user.

Unsolicited Marketing Communications

The E-Privacy Directive sets out rules on unsolicited marketing communications, often referred to as spam. These rules apply to all forms of electronic marketing communications, including email, SMS, and telephone calls. The general principle is that such communications are only allowed with the prior consent of the recipient.

There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, when a company obtains a person's contact details in the course of a sale or negotiation for a sale, and the communications are related to similar products or services. However, even in these cases, the person must be given the opportunity to opt out of receiving such communications at the time their contact details are collected and in every subsequent communication.

Enforcement and Penalties

The enforcement of the E-Privacy Directive is the responsibility of the national data protection authorities in each EU member state. These authorities have the power to investigate breaches of the directive and to impose penalties on companies that violate its provisions.

The penalties for breaches of the E-Privacy Directive can be severe. For example, in the UK, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has the power to impose fines of up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the directive. In addition to financial penalties, companies that breach the directive can also face damage to their reputation and loss of customer trust.

Relationship with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

As mentioned earlier, the E-Privacy Directive is closely linked to the GDPR. Both are part of the EU's data protection framework and are concerned with the protection of personal data and privacy. However, there are some important differences between the two.

The GDPR is a regulation, which means it is directly applicable in all EU member states without the need for national implementing legislation. The E-Privacy Directive, on the other hand, is a directive, which means it sets out general principles that must be implemented into national law by each EU member state. This has led to some variations in how the E-Privacy Directive is applied in different countries.

Overlap and Interplay

There is considerable overlap between the E-Privacy Directive and the GDPR, as both deal with the processing of personal data. In some cases, both the E-Privacy Directive and the GDPR may apply to the same processing activity. For example, when a website uses cookies to track user behaviour, this may involve the processing of personal data and therefore be subject to both the GDPR and the E-Privacy Directive.

In cases where both the E-Privacy Directive and the GDPR apply, the E-Privacy Directive takes precedence. This is because the E-Privacy Directive contains more specific rules on certain issues, such as the use of cookies and the sending of marketing communications. However, the GDPR may still apply to aspects of the processing that are not specifically covered by the E-Privacy Directive.

Future Developments: The Proposed E-Privacy Regulation

The European Commission has proposed a new regulation to replace the E-Privacy Directive, known as the E-Privacy Regulation. The proposed regulation is intended to update and modernise the rules on privacy in electronic communications, taking into account technological developments and changes in the way people use electronic communications services.

Like the GDPR, the e-privacy regulation will be directly applicable in all EU member states and will provide a more consistent set of rules across the EU. It will also align more closely with the GDPR, for example, by introducing similar provisions on consent and similar penalties for breaches. However, the proposed regulation is still under discussion, and it is not yet clear when it will be adopted.


The E-Privacy Directive is a key part of the EU's data protection framework, providing specific rules on protecting privacy in the context of electronic communications. It covers a wide range of issues, from communication confidentiality to cookie use and marketing communication sending. While it is a separate legal instrument from the GDPR, the two are closely linked and often apply to the same processing activities.

Understanding the E-Privacy Directive is essential for any company that provides electronic communications services in the EU, as well as for any company that uses such services for marketing or other purposes. Failure to comply with the directive can result in significant penalties, as well as damage to a company's reputation and loss of customer trust. Therefore, it is important for companies to be aware of the requirements of the E-Privacy Directive and to ensure that their practices are in compliance with these requirements.

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