Viviane Reding picked to re-write EU data protection laws

Her new role at the European Commission could also offer her law-making opportunities in the online advertising field

Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner who for the past five years has championed consumer rights in the telecommunications and IT arenas, has been picked to take charge of a re-write of the European Union's 15-year-old data protection laws due to start next year.

Reding is famous for slashing the cost of roaming charges that mobile phone operators impose on subscribers who use their mobile phones abroad.

But her most important achievement was to re-write Europe's telecom laws. The so-called telecom package of laws was finally adopted last week after two years of often tortuous negotiations.

In her new role as Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship she will have to perform a similar modernizing task by bringing Europe's key data protection law, the 1995 data protection directive, up to date.

"As telecoms commissioner she was responsible for a tiny part of the data protection area because the e-privacy directive was included in the telecoms package. Now she will take responsibility for the whole lot," said her spokesman Martin Selmayr in a telephone interview.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced on Friday how he wants to allocate dossiers in his next five-year term in office. His team comprises one Commissioner from each of the 27 member states of the E.U., who were selected by national heads of government over the past month.

Other choices include Neelie Kroes in Reding's old job. Kroes was competition commissioner for the past five years. During that time she fought Microsoft in the long-running antitrust battle which looks set to end as Microsoft appears willing to settle.

Her new role is likely to worry some in the telecoms industry, who believe she is less willing than Reding to fight the corner of smaller telecoms companies trying to compete against the former incumbents.

However, Selmayr dismissed such concerns. "Ms Reding feels that the telecoms dossier couldn't be in better hands," he said.

The competition portfolio, meanwhile, goes to Joaquin Almunia, the current commissioner for economic and monetary affairs. Almunia is seen as a heavyweight player, although he and the Commission did come under some criticism during the financial crisis for failing to coordinate national governments' responses.

Many Brussels observers predict that Almunia is likely to come up against Google during the next five years in the antitrust field, now that the Microsoft case appears to be winding down after ten years.

"First there was IBM, then came Microsoft. The next antitrust challenge from the IT industry will probably be Google. If so Almunia will have his work cut out for him," said one person close to the Commission who asked not to be named.

Another key dossier for the IT and telecoms industries is the internal market job, which goes to France's Michel Barnier. This position holds responsibility for intellectual property issues including patents and copyright.

Barnier will therefore play a pivotal role in forging a single community patent to replace the patchwork of national patents that cost European innovators so much, compared with their counterparts in the U.S., Japan and China among other countries.

Barnier, together with Kroes, will play a key role in solving copyright problems surrounding the digitization of books. At present it is unclear which commissioner will take the lead on this important task.

Reding's new job will include responsibility for E.U.-wide marketing laws and what has been dubbed the 'consumer contract' -- a dossier that currently falls under the duties of the consumer affairs directorate.

This task will keep her involved in the world of media -- and in particular online advertising -- and could provide her with the opportunity to initiate headline-grabbing new legislation similar to the roaming regulation she pioneered in her current role.

Each commissioner still has to be vetted by the European Parliament, which has the power to reject a proposed candidate, as it proved five years ago by rejecting Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's first choice of Rocco Buttiglione for the post Reding has been selected for.

The vetting will take place in the first half of January and the new team is due to take office by the end of that month.

If approved in her new position Reding, who comes from Luxembourg, will assume the title of Commission vice president, reflecting her seniority in the E.U.'s executive body. It will be her third term in office. Prior to the telecoms job, she held the position of culture and media commissioner under former Commission president Romano Prodi.

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Paul Meller

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