The European Union's top court yesterday overturned a ruling that forced European telecoms companies to keep their customers' phone records on file for up to two years. The EU's Court of Justice decreed that the Data Retention Directive, originally introduced after terrorist bombings in London and Madrid in 2006, infringed on fundamental human rights and "exceeded the limits" of proportionality.

Telecoms companies retained data under the directive that showed the people involved in communication and the frequency of their interactions, but not the content of the messages or phone calls. In a statement, the Court said that "by requiring the retention of those data and by allowing the competent national authorities to access those data, the directive interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data."

Austrian and Irish courts questioned the law

The EU's invalidation of the Data Retention Directive comes at the same time as the United States government is overhauling its own phone data collection program. President Obama announced a proposal in March that would see information on private citizens' communications stored by telecoms companies, rather than the National Security Agency. Under the old program — which remains active with some limitations until Obama's plan comes into effect — the NSA can store private citizens' phone data for up to five years. The new rules would mean that the US government is only able to access phone data after obtaining approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. While Obama's plan would to curb the amount of snooping the NSA is able to do, information on a huge number of private citizens would still be collected — precisely the practice the EU says contravenes fundamental human rights.

The Data Retention Directive was reviewed by the EU after Austrian and Irish courts questioned whether it was allowed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. Not all of the European Union's member countries had adopted the directive's rules: in Germany, the directive sparked a public debate that resulted in the country's Constitutional Court blocking a law that would see phone data stored for six months. Germany's government said it would come up with its own law.

The Data Retention Directive was invalidated by the EU's Court of Justice

Had the European Court of Justice upheld the ruling, then Germany would have had to adopt the law, or face fines. The issue of privacy is a sensitive one in the country — as demonstrated by the angry reaction to the Snowden revelations that the NSA had been spying on German citizens — as many of its people still remember the program of internal surveillance run by the East German Stasi secret police.