EU Opens Media Player Privacy Inquiry

European regulators are taking a hard look at major media players, in an effort to determine whether they pose a hazard to consumers’ privacy and should be included in a new law.

Officials at the European Commission — the European Union’s bureaucratic arm — said in a working paper updated Thursday that they are interested in pursuing the implications of information collected through “spywares, which are pieces of software secretly installed in the individual’s computer,” including “music player software … in order to send back personal information related to the data subject.”

The Commission’s EU Advisory Body on Data Protection and Privacy, which issued the document, is aiming to determine how recent EU data laws, which prohibit illicit online data collection and use by marketers, apply to information-collectors based in other parts of the world.

“The need to determine whether national law applies to situations with links to several countries is not specific to data protection, or to the Internet, or to the European Union,” wrote Stefano Rotota, chairman of the working party. He added that the group’s interpretation of EU law to extend to foreign data-collectors would be “most beneficial … The Working Party is convinced that a high level of protection of individuals can only be ensured if Web sites established outside the European Union … respect the guarantees for personal data processing, in particular the collection, and the rights of individuals recognized at European level.”

If the regulators are successful in expanding the law to include foreign software, the EC would have succeeded in dramatically increasing the European Union’s already-considerable impact on Internet privacy. Last month, the European Parliament approved a directive banning “opt-out” e-mail.

Such an expansion could pose headaches for the leading manufacturers of the top media players — Microsoft and RealNetworks — which are both based in the U.S.

Spokespeople from Microsoft were available for comment.

But a spokesperson from Seattle-based RealNetworks pointed to the company’s privacy policy, which states that the firm collects user data only in aggregate, so that consumer data is untraceable to a particular individual. The firm also said that has the right to build data profiles that are both aggregated and anonymous.

“We don’t know what you do on your player,” said the spokesperson, who added that the firm has not been contacted by the EU. “There’s no individual tracking of your data … Our privacy policy is very clear and thorough and we adhere to it. We are not spyware. We don’t secretly install and we track any individual users tastes in music.”

She added that the firm’s chief privacy officer enforces “a detailed and lengthy set of privacy practices to ensure that our products respect users’ privacy, and our products and services are put through extensive privacy testing during development and before shipping. We take these obligations very seriously.”

Microsoft, which has offices in Redmond, Wash., admitted earlier this year to the Associated Press that it logs downloaded music played in its Windows Media Player 8, as well as issues an unique identification number. The company soon thereafter altered its privacy policy to reveal this fact, and has said the data is neither sold nor is personally identifiable.

The development comes just weeks after the Commission announced that it was considering an investigation into Microsoft’s Passport service — in addition to the EU’s ongoing probe of the software giant’s business practices.

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