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WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger face tighter regulation in Europe

The European Commission is overhauling telecom regulations, and US companies are unlikely to escape unscathed.

Christian Ohde, ullstein bild via Getty Images

Messaging apps born out of Silicon Valley may have their freewheeling wings clipped to fit in with new European telecom regulations.

The European Commission looks set to tighten rules governing messaging apps like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger as part of a major telecoms industry overhaul due to be announced in September.

Communication tools that piggyback on data plans will have to abide by strict new security and confidentiality rules, according to a Financial Times report published Monday that cites internal documents seen by the publication.

US-based tech giants like Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, and Microsoft, which owns Skype, have traditionally fallen outside the Commission's regulation of the European telecoms industry. This means they have more freedom in deciding how to handle requests from security agencies or which companies can make money from their customer data. But all that could change.

"The Commission has been looking into the growing importance of online players that provide similar or equivalent services to traditional communication services," said Nathalie Vandystadt, spokesperson for the Commission's Digital Single Market. The Commission was "considering" whether rules governing WhatsApp and Skype needed to be adapted, Vandystadt added, but didn't confirm whether they would definitely be put in place.

If the new rules are introduced, messaging apps could be regulated in a similar way to traditional text messaging and voice calling by the law for the first time. Although, the Commission has been keen to emphasize that this will not automatically be the case.

Along with introducing more security and privacy regulations, the rules could potentially compel the services to provide access to emergency numbers within messaging apps, said the FT.

It's an outcome that is likely to please European telecoms giants. Companies including Telefonica and Vodafone have consistently put pressure on the EU to level the playing field in order that they might better compete with Silicon Valley companies. A central element of this has been to ask for more parity in how companies operating within the telecoms industry are regulated.

The Commission is set to announce the rules in September as part of the scheduled revamp of the EU telecoms framework. It will then spell them out in detail in a separate review of EU "ePrivacy" law, which is slated for later this year, according to the FT.