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CJEU in Manni: data subjects do not have the right to obtain erasure from the Companies Register, but they do have the right to object

by Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna

The recent judgment of the CJEU in Case C-398/15 Manni (9 March 2017) brings a couple of significant points to the EU data protection case-law:

  • Clarifies that an individual seeking to limit the access to his/her personal data published in a Companies Register does not have the right to obtain erasure of that data, not even after his/her company ceased to exist;
  • Clarifies that, however, that individual has the right to object to the processing of that data, based on his/her particular circumstances and on justified grounds;
  • Clarifies the link between the purpose of the processing activity and the data retention period, and underlines how important is the purpose of the processing activity when analysing whether a data subject can obtain erasure or blocking of data.
  • Provides insight into the balancing exercise between interests of third parties to have access to data published in the Companies Register and the rights of the individual to obtain erasure of the data and to object to its processing.

This commentary will highlight all points enumerated above.

1. Facts of the case

Mr Manni had requested his regional Chamber of Commerce to erase his personal data from the Public Registry of Companies, after he found out that he was losing clients who performed background checks on him through a private company that specialised in finding information in the Public Registry. This happened because Mr Manni had been an administrator of a company that was declared bankrupt more than 10 years before the facts in the main proceedings. In fact, the former company itself was radiated from the Public Registry (§23 to §29).

2. The question in Manni

The question that the CJEU had to answer in Manni was whether the obligation of Member States to keep public Companies Registers[1] and the requirement that personal data must be kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which the data were collected[2] must be interpreted as meaning that individuals must be allowed to “request the authority responsible for maintaining the Companies Register to limit, after a certain period has elapsed from the dissolution of the company concerned and on the basis of a case-by-case assessment, access to personal data concerning them and entered in that register” (§30).

3. Applicability of Directive 95/46 (Data Protection Directive – ‘DPD’)

First, CJEU clarified that its analysis does not concern processing of data by the specialized rating company, and it only refers to the obligations of the public authority keeping the companies register (§31). Second, the CJEU ascertained that the provisions of the DPD are applicable in this case:

  • the identification data of Mr Manni recorded in the Register is personal data[3] – “the fact that information was provided as part of a professional activity does not mean that it cannot be characterized as personal data” (§34);
  • the authority keeping the register is a “controller”[4] that carries out “processing of personal data”[5] by “transcribing and keeping that information in the register and communicating it, where appropriate, on request to third parties” (§35).

4. The role of the data quality principles and the legitimate grounds for processing in ensuring a high level of protection of fundamental rights

Further, CJEU recalls its case-law stating that the DPD “seeks to ensure a high level of protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons” (§37) and that the provisions of the DPD “must necessarily be interpreted in the light of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter”, and especially Articles 7 – respect for private life and 8 – protection of personal data (§39). The Court recalls the content of Articles 7 and 8 and specifically lays out that the requirements under Article 8 Charter “are implemented inter alia in Articles 6, 7, 12, 14 and 28 of Directive 95/46” (§40).

The Court highlights the significance of the data quality principles and the legitimate grounds for processing under the DPD in the context of ensuring a high level of protection of fundamental rights:

“[S]ubject to the exceptions permitted under Article 13 of that directive, all processing of personal data must comply, first, with the principles relating to data quality set out in Article 6 of the directive and, secondly, with one of the criteria for making data processing legitimate listed in Article 7 of the directive” (§41 and case-law cited).

The Court applies this test in reverse order, which is, indeed, more logical. A processing activity should, first, be legitimate under one of the lawful grounds for processing and only after ascertaining that this is the case, the question of compliance with the data quality principles should arise.

CJEU finds that in the case at hand the processing activity is legitimized by three lawful grounds (§42, §43):

  • compliance with a legal obligation [Article 7(c)];
  • the exercise of official authority or the performance of a task carried out in the public interest [Article 7(e)] and
  • the realization of a legitimate interest pursued by the controller or by the third parties to whom the data are disclosed [Article 7(f)].

5. The link between the data retention principle, the right to erasure and the right to object

Article 6(1)(e) of the DPD requires that personal data are kept in a form which permits identification of data subjects for no longer than what is necessary for the purposes for which the data were collected or for which they are further processed. This means that controllers should only retain personal data up until it serves the purpose for which it was processed and automatically anonymise, erase or otherwise make unavailable that data. If the controller does not comply with this obligation, the data subject has two possible avenues to stop the processing: he/she can either ask for erasure of that data, or they can object to the processing based on their particular situation and a justified objection.

CJEU explains that “in the event of failure to comply with the condition laid down in Article 6(1)(e)” of the DPD, “Member States guarantee the person concerned, pursuant to Article 12(b) thereof, the right to obtain from the controller, as appropriate, the erasure or blocking of the data concerned” (§46 and C-131/12 Google/Spain §70).

In addition, the Court explains, Member States also must “grant the data subject the right, inter alia in the cases referred to in Article 7(e) and (f) of that directive, to object at any time on compelling legitimate grounds relating to his particular situation to the processing of data relating to him, save where otherwise provided by national legislation”, pursuant to Article 14(a) DPD (§47).

The CJEU further explains that “the balancing to be carried out under subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 … enables account to be taken in a more specific manner of all the circumstances surrounding the data subject’s particular situation. Where there is a justified objection, the processing instigated by the controller may no longer involve those data” (§47).

6. The pivotal role of the purpose of the processing activity in granting the right to erasure and the right to object

After establishing these general rules, the Court decides that in order to establish where data subjects have the “right to apply to the authority responsible for keeping the register to erase or block the personal data entered in that register after a certain period of time, or to restrict access to it, it is first necessary to ascertain the purpose of that registration” (§48).

The pivotal role of the purpose of the processing operation should not come as a surprise, given the fact that the data retention principle is tightly linked to accomplishing the purpose of the processing operation.

In this case, the Court looked closely at Directive 68/151 and explained at length that the purpose of the disclosure provided for by it is “to protect in particular the interests of third parties in relation to joint stock companies and limited liability companies, since the only safeguards they offer to third parties are their assets” (§49) and “to guarantee legal certainty in relation to dealings between companies and third parties in view of the intensification of trade between Member States” (§50). CJEU also referred to primary EU law, and specifically to Article 54(3)(g) EEC, one of the legal bases of the directive, which “refers to the need to protect the interests of third parties generally, without distinguishing or excluding any categories falling within the ambit of that term” (§51).

The Court further noted that Directive 68/151 makes no express provision regarding the necessity of keeping personal data in the Companies Register “also after the activity has ceased and the company concerned has been dissolved” (§52). However, the Court notes that “it is common ground that even after the dissolution of a company, rights and legal relations relating to it continue to exist” (§53) and “questions requiring such data may arise for many years after a company has ceased to exist” (§54).

Finally, CJEU declared:

“in view of the range of possible scenarios … it seems impossible, at present, to identify a single time limit, as from the dissolution of a company, at the end of which the inclusion of such data in the register and their disclosure would no longer be necessary” (§55).

7. Conclusion A: there is no right to erasure

The Court concluded that “in those circumstances” the data retention principle in Article 6(1)(e) DPD and the right to erasure in Article 12(b) DPD do not guarantee for the data subjects referred to in Directive 68/151 a right to obtain “as a matter of principle, after a certain period of time from the dissolution of the company concerned, the erasure of personal data concerning them” (§56).

After already reaching this conclusion, the Court also explained that this interpretation of the provisions in question does not result in “disproportionate interference with the fundamental rights of the persons concerned, and particularly their right to respect for private life and their right to protection of personal data as guaranteed by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter” (§57).

To this end, the Court took into account:

  • that Directive 68/151 requires “disclosure only for a limited number of personal data items” (§58) and
  • that “it appears justified that natural persons who choose to participate in trade through such a company are required to disclose the data relating to their identity and functions within that company, especially since they are aware of that requirement when they decide to engage in such activity” (§59).

8. Conclusion B: but there is a right to object

After acknowledging that, in principle, the need to protect the interests of third parties in relation to joint-stock companies and limited liability companies and to ensure legal certainty, fair trading and thus the proper functioning of the internal market take precedence over the right of the data subject to object under Article 14 DPD, the Court points out that

it cannot be excluded, however, that there may be specific situations in which the overriding and legitimate reasons relating to the specific case of the person concerned justify exceptionally that access to personal data entered in the register is limited, upon expiry of a sufficiently long period after the dissolution of the company in question, to third parties who can demonstrate a specific interest in their consultation” (§60).

While the Court leaves it to the national courts to assess each case “having regard to all the relevant circumstances and taking into account the time elapsed since the dissolution of the company concerned”, it also points out that, in the case of Mr Manni, “the mere fact that, allegedly, the properties of a tourist complex built … do not sell because of the fact that potential purchasers of those properties have access to that data in the company register, cannot be regarded as constituting such a reason, in particular in view of the legitimate interest of those purchasers in having that information” (§63).

9. Post Scriptum

The Court took a very pragmatic approach in dealing with the case of Mr Manni. The principles of interpretation it laid down are solid – such an analysis indeed requires looking at the legitimate grounds for processing and the relevant data quality principle. Having the Court placing strong emphasis on the significance of the purpose of the processing activity is welcome, just like having more guidance on the balancing exercise of the rights and interests in question. In addition, a separate assessment of the right to obtain erasure and of the right to object is very helpful with a view towards the future – the full entering into force of the GDPR and its heightened rights of the data subject.

The aspect of the judgment that leaves some room for improvement is analysing the proportionality of the interference of the virtually unlimited publishing of personal data in the Companies Register with Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter. The Court does tackle this, but lightly – and it brings two arguments only after already declaring that the interference is not disproportionate. Moreover, the Court does not distinguish between interferences with Article 7 and interferences with Article 8.

Finally, I was happy to see that the predicted outcome of the case, as announced in the pdpEcho commentary on the Opinion of the Advocate General Bot, proved to be mainly correct: “the Court will follow the AG’s Opinion to a large extent. However, it may be more focused on the fundamental rights aspect of balancing the two Directives and it may actually analyse the content of the right to erasure and its exceptions. The outcome, however, is likely to be the same.”

Suggested citation: G. Zanfir-Fortuna, “CJEU in Manni: data subjects do not have the right to obtain erasure from the Companies Register, but they do have the right to object”, pdpEcho.com, 13 March 2017.


[1] Article 3 of Directive 68/151.

[2] Article 6(1)(e) of Directive 95/46.

[3] Article 2(a) of Directive 95/46.

[4] Article 2(d) of Directive 95/46.

[5] Article 2(b) of Directive 95/46.

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Some end-of-the-year good news: People genuinely care about their privacy

Dear followers,

First, I would like to thank you for making this the most successful year in the 5 years life of pdpEcho (I would especially like to thank those who supported the blog and helped me cover, thus, the cost of renting the blog’s .com name). I started this blog when I was in my first year as a PhD student to gather all information I find interesting related to privacy and data protection. At that time I was trying to convince my classic “civilist” supervisor that data protection is also a matter of civil law. And that I could write a civil law thesis on this subject in Romanian, even though Romanian literature on it only counted one book title from 2004. In the five years that followed another book title was added to it and the blog and I grew together (be it at different paces).

In the recent months it offered me a way to keep myself connected to the field while transitioning from Brussels to the US. But most importantly it reminded me constantly that privacy is really not dead, as it has been claimed numerous times. I cared about it, people that daily found this blog cared about it and as long as we care about privacy, it will never die.

I am writing this end-of-the-year post with some very good news from Europe: you and I are not the only ones that care about privacy. A vast majority of Europeans also does. The European Commission published some days ago a Eurobarometer on ePrivacy, as a step towards the launch of the ePrivacy Directive reform later in January.

The results could not have been clearer:

More than nine in ten respondents said it is important that personal information (such as their pictures, contact lists, etc.) on their computer, smartphone or tablet can only be accessed with their permission, and that it is important that the confidentiality of their e-mails and online instant messaging is guaranteed (both 92%)” (source, p. 2).

“More than seven in ten think both of these aspects are very important. More than eight in ten (82%) also say it is important that tools for monitoring their activities online (such as cookies) can only be used with their permission (82%), with 56% of the opinion this is very important” (source, p. 2).

Overwhelming support for encryption

Remarkably, 90% of those asked agreed “they should be able to encrypt their messages and calls, so they can only be read by the recipient”. Almost as many (89%) agree the default settings of their browser should stop their information from being shared (source, p. 3).

Respondents thought it is unacceptable to have their online activities monitored in exchange for unrestricted access to a certain website (64%), or to pay in order not to be monitored when using a website (74%). Almost as many (71%) say it is unacceptable for companies to share information about them without their permission (71%), even if it helps companies provide new services they may like (source, p. 4).

You can find here the detailed report.

Therefore, there is serious cause to believe that our work and energy is well spent in this field.

The new year brings me several publishing projects that I am very much looking forward to, as well as two work projects on this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, I hope I will be able to keep up the work on pdpEcho, for which I hope to receive more feedback and even input from you.

In this note, I wish you all a Happy New Year, where all our fundamental rights will be valued and protected!

Gabriela

 

A million dollar question, literally: Can DPAs fine a controller directly on the basis of the GDPR, or do they need to wait for national laws?

by Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna

The need to discuss the legal effect of the GDPR emerged as there are some opinions in the privacy bubble informing that it will take at least a couple of years before the GDPR will de facto have legal effect at national level, after the moment it becomes applicable in 2018. The main argument for this thesis is that national parliaments of the Member States will need to take action in a way or another, or that national governments will need to issue executive orders to grant new powers to supervisory authorities, including the power to fine.

This post will bring forward some facts emerging from EU primary law and from the case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that need to be taken into account before talking about such a de facto grace period.

The conclusion is that, just like all EU regulations, the GDPR is directly applicable and has immediate effect from the date it becomes applicable according to its publication in the EU Official Journal (in this case, 25 May 2018), with no other national measures being required to give it effect in the Member States (not even translations at national level). While it is true that it contains provisions that give a margin of appreciation to Member States if they wish to intervene, most of the articles are sufficiently clear, detailed and straightforward to allow direct application, if need be ( for instance, if a Member State is late in adjusting and adapting its national data protection law).

1) EU regulations enjoy “direct applicability”: the rule is that they are “immediately applicable” and they don’t need national transposition

First and foremost, it is a fact emerging from the EU treaties that EU Regulations enjoy direct applicability, which means that once they become applicable they do not need to be transposed into national law.

This rule is set out in the second paragraph of Article 288 of the Treaty on the European Union, which states that:

“A regulation shall have general application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.”

On the contrary, according to the third paragraph of Article 288 TFEU, directives “shall be binding, as to the result to be achieved, upon each Member State to which it is addressed, but shall leave to the national authorities the choice of form and methods.”

Therefore, as the CJEU explained in settled case-law, “by virtue of the very nature of regulations and of their function in the system of sources of Community law, the provisions of those regulations generally have immediate effect in the national legal systems without it being necessary for the national authorities to adopt measures of application” (see Case C-278/02 Handlbauer2004, §25 and Case 93/71 Leonesio, 1972, §5) and in addition they also “operate to confer rights on individuals which the national courts have a duty to protect” (Case C-70/15 Lebek, 2016, §51).

However, the CJEU also ruled that “some of their provisions may nonetheless necessitate, for their implementation, the adoption of measures of application by the Member States” (Case C-278/02 Handlbauer2004, §26; C-403/98 Monte Arcosu, 2001, §26). But this is not the case of sufficiently clear and precise provisions, where Member States don’t enjoy any margin of manoeuvre. For instance, the Court found in Handlbauer that “this is not the case as regards Article 3(1) of Regulation No 2988/95 which, by fixing the limitation period for proceedings at four years as from the time when the irregularity is committed, leaves the Member States no discretion nor does it require them to adopt implementation measures” (§27).

Therefore, whenever an EU regulation leaves the Member States no discretion, nor does it require them to adopt implementation measures, the provisions of that regulation are directly and immediately applicable as they are.

2) EU regulations’ direct applicability is not depending on any national measure (not even translation published in national official journals)

The CJEU explained as far back as 1973 that for EU regulations to take effect in national legal systems of Member States there is not even the need to have their texts translated and published in the national official journals.

Asked whether the provisions of a Regulation can be “introduced into the legal order of Member States by internal measures reproducing the contents of Community provisions in such a way that the subject-matter is brought under national law”, the Court replied that “the direct application of a Regulation means that its entry into force and its application in favour of or against those subject to it are independent of any measure of reception into national law” (Case 34/73 Variola, 1973, §9 and §10). AG Kokott explained that such measures include “any publicity by the Member States” (Opinion in C-161/06 Skoma-lux, §54) in an Opinion that was substantially upheld by the Court in a judgment stating that the publication of a regulation in the Official Journal of the EU in an official language of a Member State is the only condition to give it effect and direct applicability in that Member State (Judgment in Case C-161/06).

The Court concluded in Variola that “a legislative measure under national law which reproduces the text of a directly applicable rule of Community law cannot in any way affect such direct applicability, or the Court’s jurisdiction under the Treaty” (operative part of the judgment). The Court also explained in Variola that “by virtue of the obligations arising from the Treaty and assumed on ratification, Member States are under a duty not to obstruct the direct applicability inherent in Regulations and other rules of Community law. Strict compliance with this obligation is an indispensable condition of simultaneous and uniform application of Community Regulations throughout the Community” (Case 34/73 Variola, 1973, §10).

3) National authorities could impose administrative penalties directly on the basis of a provision of a Regulation, where necessary 

The Court dealt with the question of national authorities imposing administrative fines directly on the basis of the provisions of an EU regulation in Case C-367/09 Belgish Interventie en Restitutie Bureau  on the interpretation of provisions from Regulation 2988/95.

After recalling its case-law on direct applicability of EU regulations (§32), including the exemption that some provisions of a Regulation necessitate for their implementation the adoption of measures of application (§33), the CJEU found that in that specific case national authorities cannot impose fines directly on the basis of Articles 5 and 7 of Regulation 2988/95 because “those provisions merely lay down general rules for supervision and penalties for the purpose of safeguarding the EU’s financial interests (…). In particular, those provisions do not specify which of the penalties listed in Article 5 of Regulation No 2988/95 should be applied in the case of an irregularity detrimental to the EU’s financial interests nor the category of operators on whom such penalties are to be imposed in such cases” (§36).

Therefore, the Court did not question the possibility of a national authority to impose fines directly on the legal basis provided by a regulation. The CJEU went directly to analyse the content of the relevant provision and found that fines could not be imposed because of the general character of that provision, which required additional measures to be adopted both at Member State and at EU level (were the provisions more clear, the authorities could have directly issued fines on the basis of the regulation).

One look at Article 83 GDPR and one can easily tell that this is not the case of that provision – it is clear who imposes fines, for what, against whom, on what criteria and what is the maximum amount for each category of fines. Neither is it the case of Article 58 on the powers of supervisory authorities. Article 83 GDPR allows Member States some discretion only if they wish to provide specific rules for fining public authorities (paragraph 7) and only if their legal system does not provide for administrative fines – in this case, the states are allowed to apply Article 83 in such a manner that the fine is initiated by the competent supervisory authority and imposed by competent national courts (paragraph 9).

4) Conclusion: beware of the GDPR from day 1

The GDPR, like all EU regulations, is directly applicable and has immediate effect in the legal order of Member States by virtue of its publication in the Official Journal of the EU and the conditions of applicability in time expressed therein, no additional national measures being required to give it effect.

While there are provisions that give Member States a margin of appreciation and a discretion to implement national measures, most of the provisions are sufficiently clear and precise to be applied as they are.

Of course there will be national data protection laws that will specify additional rules to the GDPR, giving effect to that margin of appreciation. But the national laws that will complement an EU regulation, such as the GDPR, are valid only as long as “they do not obstruct its direct applicability and do not conceal its [EU] nature, and if they specify that a discretion granted to them by that regulation is being exercised, provided that they adhere to the parameters laid down under it” (CJEU, Case C‑316/10 Danske Svineproducenter Justitsministeriet, §41).

As always, here is the fine print (or the caveat) whenever we are discussing about the interpretation of EU law: only the CJEU has the authority to interpret EU law in a binding manner.

(Note: The author is grateful to dr. Mihaela Mazilu-Babel, who provided support with preliminary research for this post)

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Even if post Brexit-UK adopts the GDPR, it will be left without its “heart”

Gabriela Zanfir Fortuna

brexit

There has been lately a wave of optimism of those looking for legal certainty that the GDPR will be adopted by the UK even after the country leaves the European Union. This wave was prompted by a declaration of the British Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, at the end of October, when she stated before a Committee of the Parliament that “We will be members of the EU in 2018 and therefore it would be expected and quite normal for us to opt into the GDPR and then look later at how best we might be able to help British business with data protection while maintaining high levels of protection for members of the publicThe information commissioner of the UK, Elisabeth Denham, welcomed the news. On another hand, as Amberhawk explained in detail, this will not mean that the UK will automatically be considered as ensuring an adequate level of protection.

The truth is that as long as the UK is still a Member of the EU, it can’t opt in or opt out, for that matter, from regulations (other than the ones subject to the exemptions negotiated by the UK when it entered the Union – but this is not the case for the GDPR). They are “binding in their entirety” and “directly applicable”, according to Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. So, yes, quite normally, if the UK is still a Member State of the EU on 25 May 2018, then the GDPR will start applying in the UK just as it will be applying in Estonia or France.

The fate of the GDPR after Brexit becomes effective will be as uncertain as the fate of all other EU legislative acts transposed in the UK or directly applicable in the UK. But let’s imagine the GDPR will remain national law after Brexit, in a form or another. If this happens, it is likely that it will take a life of its own, departing from harmonised application throughout the EU. First and foremost, the GDPR in the UK will not be applied in the light of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and especially its Article 8 – the right to the protection of personal data. The Charter played an extraordinary role in the strengthening of data protection in the EU after it became binding, in 2009, being invoked by the Court of Justice of the EU in its landmark judgments – Google v Spain,  Digital Rights Ireland and Schrems.

The Court held as far back as 2003 that “the provisions of Directive 95/46, in so far as they govern the processing of personal data liable to infringe fundamental freedoms, in particular the right to privacy, must necessarily be interpreted in the light of fundamental rights” (Österreichischer Rundfunk, para 68). This principle was repeated in most of the following cases interpreting Directive 95/46 and other relevant secondary law for this field, perhaps with the most notable results in Digital Rights Ireland and Schrems. 

See, for instance:

“As far as concerns the rules relating to the security and protection of data retained by providers of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks, it must be held that Directive 2006/24 does not provide for sufficient safeguards, as required by Article 8 of the Charter, to ensure effective protection of the data retained against the risk of abuse and against any unlawful access and use of that data” (Digital Rights Ireland, para. 66).

“As regards the level of protection of fundamental rights and freedoms that is guaranteed within the European Union, EU legislation involving interference with the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter must, according to the Court’s settled case-law, lay down clear and precise rules governing the scope and application of a measure and imposing minimum safeguards, so that the persons whose personal data is concerned have sufficient guarantees enabling their data to be effectively protected against the risk of abuse and against any unlawful access and use of that data. The need for such safeguards is all the greater where personal data is subjected to automatic processing and where there is a significant risk of unlawful access to that data” (Schrems, para. 91).

Applying data protection law outside the spectrum of fundamental rights will most likely not ensure sufficient protection to the person. While the UK will still remain under the legal effect of the European Convention of Human Rights and its Article 8 – respect for private life – this by far does not equate to the specific protection ensured to personal data by Article 8 of the Charter as interpreted and applied by the CJEU.

Not only the Charter will not be binding for the UK post-Brexit, but the Court of Justice of the EU will not have jurisdiction anymore on the UK territory (unless some sort of spectacular agreement is negotiated for Brexit). Moreover, EU law will not enjoy supremacy over national law, as there is the case right now. This means that the British data protection law will be able to depart from the European standard (GDPR) to the extent desirable by the legislature. For instance, there will be nothing staying in the way of the British legislature to adopt permissive exemptions to the rights of the data subject, pursuant to Article 23 GDPR.

So when I mentioned in the title that the GDPR in the post-Brexit UK will in any case be left without its “heart”, I was referring to its application and interpretation in the light of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the EU.

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Interested in the GDPR? See the latest posts:

CNIL just published the results of their GDPR public consultation: what’s in store for DPOs and data portability? (Part I)

CNIL’s public consultation on the GDPR: what’s in store for Data Protection Impact Assessments and certification mechanisms? (Part II)

The GDPR already started to appear in CJEU’s soft case-law (AG Opinion in Manni)

A look at political psychological targeting, EU data protection law and the US elections

Cambridge Analytica, a company that uses “data modeling and psychographic profiling” (according to its website), is credited with having decisively contributed to the outcome of the presidential election in the U.S.. They did so by using “a hyper-targeted psychological approach” allowing them to see trends among voters that no one else saw and thus to model the speech of the candidate to resonate with those trends. According to Mashable, the same company also assisted the Leave. EU campaign that leaded to Brexit.

How do they do it?

“We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people” (my emphasis), states their website (for comparison, the US has a 324 million population). They further explain that “when you go beneath the surface and learn what people really care about you can create fully integrated engagement strategies that connect with every person at the individual level” (my emphasis).

According to Mashable, the company “uses a psychological approach to polling, harvesting billions of data from social media, credit card histories, voting records, consumer data, purchase history, supermarket loyalty schemes, phone calls, field operatives, Facebook surveys and TV watching habits“. This data “is bought or licensed from brokers or sourced from social media”.

(For a person who dedicated their professional life to personal data protection this sounds chilling.)

Legal implications

Under US privacy law this kind of practice seems to have no legal implications, as it doesn’t involve processing by any authority of the state, it’s not a matter of consumer protection and it doesn’t seem to fall, prima facie, under any piece of the piecemeal legislation dealing with personal data in the U.S. (please correct me if I’m wrong).

Under EU data protection law, this practice would raise a series of serious questions (see below), without even getting into the debate of whether this sort of intimate profiling would also breach the right to private life as protected by Article 7 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the right to personal data protection and the right to private life are protected separately in the EU legal order). Put it simple, the right to data protection enshrines the “rules of the road” (safeguards) for data that is being processed on a lawful ground, while the right to private life protects the inner private sphere of a person altogether, meaning that it can prohibit the unjustified interferences in the person’s private life. This post will only look at mass psychological profiling from the data protection perspective.

Does EU data protection law apply to the political profilers targeting US voters?

But why would EU data protection law even be applicable to a company creating profiles of 220 million Americans? Surprisingly, EU data protection law could indeed be relevant in this case, if it turns out that the company carrying out the profiling is based in the UK (London-based), as several websites claim in their articles (here, here and here).

Under Article 4(1)(a) of Directive 95/46, the national provisions adopted pursuant to the directive shall apply “where the processing is carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of the Member State“. Therefore, the territorial application of Directive 95/46 is triggered by the place of establishment of the controller.  Moreover, Recital 18 of the Directive’s Preamble explains that “in order to ensure that individuals are not deprived of the protection to which they are entitled under this Directive, any processing of personal data in the Community (EU – n.) must be carried out in accordance with the law of one of the Member States” and that “in this connection, processing carried out under the responsibility of a controller who is established in a Member State should be governed by the law of that State” (see also CJEU Case C-230/14 Weltimmo, paras. 24, 25, 26).

There are, therefore, no exceptions to applying EU data protection rules to any processing of personal data that is carried out under the responsibility of a controller established in a Member State. Is it relevant here whether the data subjects are not European citizens, and whether they would not even be physically located within Europe? The answer is probably in the negative. Directive 95/46 provides that the data subjects it protects are “identified or identifiable natural persons“, without differentiating them based on their nationality. Neither does the Directive link its application to any territorial factor concerning the data subjects. Moreover, according to Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, “everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her”.

I must emphasise here that the Court of Justice of the EU is the only authority that can interpret EU law in a binding manner and that until the Court decides how to interpret EU law in a specific case, we can only engage in argumentative exercises. If the interpretation proposed above would be found to have some merit, it would indeed be somewhat ironic to have the data of 220 million Americans protected by EU data protection rules.

What safeguards do persons have against psychological profiling for political purposes?

This kind of psychological profiling for political purposes would raise a number of serious questions. First of all, there is the question of whether this processing operation involves processing of “special categories of data”. According to Article 8(1) of Directive 95/46, “Member States shall prohibit the processing of personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade-union membership, and the processing of data concerning health or sex life.” There are several exceptions to this prohibition, of which only two would conceivably be applicable to this kind of profiling:

  • if the data subject has given his explicit consent to the processing of those data (letter a) or
  • the processing relates to data which are manifestly made public by the data subject (letter e).

In order for this kind of psychological profiling to be lawful, the controller must obtain explicit consent to process all the points of data used for every person profiled. Or the controller must only use those data points that were manifestly made public by a person.

Moreover, under Article 15(1) of Directive 95/46, the person has the right “not to be subject to a decision which produces legal effects concerning him or significantly affects him and which is based solely on automated processing of data intended to evaluate certain personal aspects relating to him, such as his performance at work, creditworthiness, reliability, conduct, etc.”. It is of course to be interpreted to what extent psychological profiling for political purposes produces legal effects or significantly affects the person.

Another problem concerns the obligation of the controller to inform every person concerned that this kind of profiling is taking place (Articles 10 and 11 of Directive 95/46) and to give them details about the identity of the controller, the purposes of the processing and all the personal data that is being processed. In addition, the person should be informed that he or she has the right to ask for a copy of the data the controller holds about him or her and the right to ask for the erasure of that data if it was processed unlawfully (Article 12 of Directive 95/46).

Significantly, the person has the right to opt-out of a processing operation, at any time, without giving reasons, if that data is being processed for the purposes of direct marketing (Article 14(b) of Directive 95/46). For instance, in the UK, the supervisory authority – the Information Commissioner’s Office, issued Guidance for political campaigns in 2014 and gave the example of “a telephone call which seeks an individual’s opinions in order to use that data to identify those people likely to support the political party or referendum campaign at a future date in order to target them with marketing” as constituting direct marketing.

Some thoughts

  • The analysis of how EU data protection law is relevant for this kind of profiling would be more poignant if it would be made under the General Data Protection Regulation, which will become applicable on 25 May 2018 and which has a special provision for profiling.
  • The biggest ever fine issued by the supervisory authority in the UK is 350.000 pounds, this year. Under the GDPR, breaches of data protection rules will lead to fines up to 20 million euro or 4% of the controller’s global annual turnover for the previous year, whichever is higher.
  • If any company based in the UK used this kind of psychological profiling and micro-targeting for the Brexit campaign, that processing operation would undoubtedly fall under the rules of EU data protection law. This stands true of any analytics company that provides these services to political parties anywhere in the EU using personal data of EU persons. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit the discussion we had at CPDP2016 on political behavioural targeting (who would have thought the topic will gain so much momentum this year?)
  • I wonder if data protection rules should be the only “wall (?)” between this sort of targeted-political-message-generating campaign profiling and the outcome of democratic elections.
  • Talking about ethics, data protection and big data together is becoming more urgent everyday.

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The problem with the Privacy Shield challenges: do the challengers have legal standing?

by Gabriela Zanfir Fortuna

privacy shield.jpg

Photo: commerce.org

There are currently two ongoing challenges of the Privacy Shield before the CJEU (one submitted by Digital Rights Ireland and one by a coalition of French NGOs). Before deciding on the merits of these cases, there is a risk that the Court may not consider them admissible based on legal standing rules. The Court is very strict when applying the rules under Article 263(4) TFEU, most of the actions for annulment initiated by natural or legal persons being declared inadmissible due to lack of legal standing. 

European Commission’s adequacy decision for transfers of personal data between the EU and the US under the Privacy Shield framework was challenged directly before the Court of Justice of the EU – the Grand Chamber to be more precise, under the procedure for “actions for annulment” enshrined in Article 263 TFEU.

An “action for annulment” under Article 263 TFEU allows the CJEU to “review the legality of legislative acts, of acts of the Council, of the Commission and of the European Central Bank, other than recommendations and opinions, and of acts of the European Parliament and of the European Council intended to produce legal effects vis-à-vis third parties”.

Such actions can be brought by three categories of applicants.

The privileged applicants – any “Member State, the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission on grounds of lack of competence, infringement of an essential procedural requirement, infringement of the Treaties or of any rule of law relating to their application, or misuse of powers”, according to the second paragraph of Article 263.

A second category of challengers is defined in the third paragraph of Article 263: the Court of Auditors, the European Central Bank and the Committee of the Regions. They can bring actions for annulment before the Court only “for the purpose of protecting their prerogatives”.

Finally, a third category of challengers comprises “any natural or legal person”, according to the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU. But for private parties to actually have legal standing for such actions, the conditions to be met are quite strict (this is why they are also known as “non-privileged applicants”). In fact, there are only three instances where such an action is declared admissible:

  1. if the act is addressed to that person or
  2. if the act is of direct and individual concern to them or
  3. if the act is “a regulatory act which is of direct concern to them and does not entail implementing measures”.

The third possibility was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2009, and was meant to address the critique that individuals did not have a real possibility to challenge EU acts, due to the very strict application of the “direct and individual concern” test by the Court.

As it was explained by scholars, “particularly the requirement that the act be of individual concern proves in practice to be a hurdle that is virtually insurmountable” (1). According to the much criticised Plaumann test, the Court established that “persons other than those to whom a decision is addressed may only claim to be individually concerned if that decision affects them by reason of certain attributes which are peculiar to them or by reason of circumstances in which they are differentiated from all other persons and by virtue of these factors distinguishes them individually just as in the case of the person addressed” (Case 25/62 Plaumann v. Commission, 15 July 1963).

To understand how the Court applies the Plaumann test, a very good example is the Toepfer case (Case 106-107/63).

The Court will however grant standing to those who can show that the category of applicant into which they fall is closed, that is, incapable of taking any new members; an example is Toepfer, where a certain decision of the German government to delay the granting of a licence to import grain only affected those who had applied for the licence on 1st October 1963. As this was a completed past event, the category of grain importers applying on that day (which of course included the applicant) was closed to any new members. Mr Toepfer was thus individually concerned.” – R. Lang, “Quite a challenge: Article 263(4) TFEU and the case of the mystery measures”, p. 4-5.

The Plaumann test survived decades of challenges, including a decision of the Court of First Instance (Case T-177/01 Jégo-Quéré, see particularly paragraph 51) that tried to reform it but that was quashed in appeal by the Court of Justice. The Court of First Instance argued that denying legal standing to the applicants in this case meant they would have no right to an effective remedy, due to their particular circumstance. The Court of Justice, in appeal, did not give merit to this argument.

Some nuances have been added to the Plaumann test for different areas of law, but the essence remained the same. For instance, the Court detailed additional conditions for private parties that could be individually concerned by provisions of regulations imposing anti-dumping duties (see Cases T-112/14 to T-116/14, T-119/14 Molinos Rio de la Palata from 15 September 2016, paras 43 to 45). These conditions, however, apply subsequently to the Plaumann test (see para 40 from the Molinos Rio de la Plata cases).

Therefore, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the NGOs that initiated the actions for annulment of the Commission’s adequacy decision to meet the Plaumann test. If they will manage to do it, this will come with a change of settled case-law.

However, there is another line of argumentation that the NGOs could use and that would have more chances of success. They could use the third limb of Article 263(4), the one introduced in 2009 by the Treaty of Lisbon that allows challenges by private parties of regulatory acts which are of direct concern to them and which do not entail implementing measures.

This way, the applicants will not have to prove they are individually concerned by the act, so the Plaumann test will not be applicable. However, they will enter a new, almost uncharted field: regulatory acts which do not entail implementing measures.

They will have to prove that:

  • the adequacy decision is a regulatory act;
  • the adequacy decision is of direct concern to them;
  • the adequacy decision does not entail any implementing measures.
  1. Is the adequacy decision a regulatory act?

According to case-law following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty and the changes that were brought to Article 263(4), “the meaning of ‘regulatory act’ for the purposes of the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU must be understood as covering all acts of general application apart from legislative acts” (Case T‑18/10 Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Others v Parliament and Council, 6 September 2011, para 56; Case T-262/10 Microban 25 October 2011, para 21).

In Microban, the Court found that the Commission Decision at issue was adopted “in the exercise of implementing powers and not in the exercise of legislative powers” (para 22), which confirmed its nature of a “regulatory act”. Further, the Court also took into account that “the contested decision is of general application in that it applies to objectively determined situations and it produces legal effects with respect to categories of persons envisaged in general and in the abstract” (para 23).

As the adequacy decision was adopted by the Commission in the exercise of implementing powers (following Directive 95/46), and as it is of general application, producing legal effects to categories of persons envisaged in general and in the abstract, it will most probably be classified as a “regulatory act” for the purposes of Article 263(4) TFEU.

However, there are two more conditions to be met cumulatively before the actions are declared admissible.

2. Are the applicants directly concerned by the act?

The Court uses several criteria to establish there is a “direct concern”.

The classic test the Court usually uses is the following: “firstly, the contested Community measure must directly affect the legal situation of the individual and, secondly, it must leave no discretion to its addressees, who are entrusted with the task of implementing it, such implementation being purely automatic and resulting from Community rules without the application of other intermediate rules” (Case C‑386/96 P Dreyfus v Commission, para 43, Joined Cases C‑445/07 P and C‑455/07 P Commission v Ente per le Ville vesuviane and Ente per le Ville vesuviane v Commission, para 45; Microban, para 27).

For instance, in Microban this test was met because the contested decision prohibited the marketing of materials containing triclosan. The applicants bought triclosan and used it to manufacture a product, which was further sold on for use in the manufacture of plastic materials. Therefore, the Court considered “the contested decision directly affects their legal position” (para 28).

On another hand, in a very recent case, the Court found that “no provision of the contested act is directly applicable to the applicants, in the sense that it would confer rights or impose obligations on them. Consequently, the contested act does not affect their legal position, and therefore the condition of direct concern, as referred to in the second and third situation referred to in the fourth paragraph of Article 263 TFEU, is not met” (Case T-600/15 Pesticide Action Network Europe, 28 September 2016, para 62).

This case concerned an action brought by an environmental NGO and different associations of beekepeers that challenged an Implementing Regulation approving the use of a substance called sulfoxaflor as pesticide. The Court dismissed all the arguments brought forward by the applicants to prove they were directly concerned by this act: starting with a claim that it touched the right of property and the right to conduct business of the beekeepers – due to the harmful effect of sulfoxaflor on bees, to the claim that the applicants participated in the decision making process for the Implementing Regulation, to the claim that refusing their legal standing breached their right to environmental protection under Article 37 of the Charter and their right to effective judicial remedy under Article 47 of the Charter (see paras 46 to 50).

Thus, it will not be easy to argue that the adequacy decision is of direct concern to the applicants. For instance, it could be argued that the decision primarily impacts the legal situation of controllers (and not that of data subjects) who are allowed to transfer personal data pursuant to this decision.

However, it will neither be impossible to argue the direct concern of data subjects, represented by the applicant NGOs. A first argument, perhaps of a general nature, would be that the purpose of the Decision is to establish that companies adhering to the Privacy Shield ensure an adequate level of protection of personal data with the level of protection afforded in the EU, having the consequence that transfers of personal data to those companies will automatically take place, without any further safeguard and without any additional scrutiny or authorisation. Therefore, it affects the legal situation of individuals in the EU whose data are transferred, as they will not be able to oppose the transfer before it takes place.

An objective argument could be the recognition of the rights of the data subject in Annex II of the Decision (the Privacy Shield Principles) – admitting therefore that the Decision, through its Annex, grants rights to individuals represented by the applicants.

Another argument could also be the finding of the Court in Schrems that legislation allowing mass-surveillance and access to content of communications touches the essence of the fundamental right to private life as enshrined in Article 7 of the Charter (see Schrems C-362/14, paras 93 and 94). Therefore, a regulatory act that has as direct consequence transfers of personal data to a legal system that allows such a fundamental breach of Article 7 of the Charter as directly affecting the legal situation of data subjects represented by the applicant NGOs. But for the Court to take this argument into account would mean to acknowledge the existence of mass-surveillance and access to content of communications in the US, at the time when the decision was adopted.

3. Does the adequacy decision entail implementing measures?

This will be the most difficult criterion to be met. The case-law of the Court regarding what can constitute implementing measures is very strict (from the point of view of granting legal standing), in the sense that the Court applies the concept of “implementing measures” for the purposes of Article 263(4) TFEU lato sensu.

For instance, in a landmark judgment in this area, T & L Sugars (case C-456/13, 28 April 2015), concerning an implementing regulation, “the measures at the Member States’ level consisted of receiving applications from economic operators, checking their admissibility, submitting them to the Commission and then issuing licences on the basis of the allocation coefficients fixed by the Commission” (as summarised here). So, even if AG Cruz Villalón “concluded that such non-substantive, or ‘ancillary’, measures […] by the national authorities […] in the exercise of a circumscribed power” or a “purely administrative activity” are not implementing measures (Opinion in Case C-456/13 P, T & L Sugars, para. 31 and 34)” (2), the Court found that “the decisions of the national authorities granting such certificates, which apply the coefficients fixed by Implementing Regulation No 393/2011 to the operators concerned, and the decisions refusing such certificates in full or in part therefore constitute implementing measures” (para 40).

Article 5 of the Privacy Shield adequacy decision states that “Member States shall take all the measures necessary to comply with this Decision”. Therefore, it allows further administrative measures by the Member States. But what are those measures in practice? Could the Court consider they are ancillary enough so as not to amount to “implementing measures”?

On another hand, it is also clear that before the adequacy decision takes effect, a US company must go through an administrative procedure which could amount to a certification procedure similar to the one in the T&L Sugars case. But in this case, will it matter that the alleged “implementing measures” must be taken by a third country and not by a Member State?

Conclusion

In conclusion, the problem of legal standing of the applicants in the two cases challenging the Privacy Shield decision is not at all an easy one. The odds (based on existing case-law) seem to be leaning more towards an inadmissibility of the actions for annulment. But this is why a “legal precedent” system is exciting: the Court can always nuance and, if necessary, change its case-law depending on the particular elements of each case.

However, if these actions will be declared inadmissible, it does not mean that the NGOs concerned will not be able to challenge the Privacy Shield decision in national courts, bringing the case to the CJEU afterwards via the preliminary ruling procedure based on Article 267 TFEU. In fact, even an inadmissible decision will help their subsequent actions at national level, considering that their request to submit preliminary ruling questions to the CJEU will not be able to be dismissed by the national courts due to the fact that they did not challenge the decision directly following Article 263 TFEU (considering the possibility they could have had legal standing).

Whatever the outcome of these two challenges, the decision of the Court will be very important for the “legal standing of natural and legal persons” doctrine in general, on one hand, and for the application of Article 263(4) TFEU to the different acts of the future European Data Protection Board (see Recital 143 of the GDPR), on the other hand.

…………………………………………………………………

(1) Jan H. Jans, On Inuit and Judicial Protection in a Shared Legal Order, European Environmental Law Review, August 2012, p. 189.

(2) Jasper Krommendijk, The seal product cases: the ECJ’s silence on admissibility in Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami II, available here.

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The GDPR already started to appear in CJEU’s soft case-law (AG Opinion in Manni)

CJEU’s AG Bot referred to the GDPR in his recent ‘right to be forgotten’ Opinion

It may only become applicable on 25 May 2018, but the GDPR already made its official debut in the case-law of the CJEU.

It was the last paragraph (§101) of the Conclusions of AG Bot in Case C-398/15 Manni, published on 8 September, that specifically referred to Regulation 2016/679 (the official name of the GDPR). The case concerns the question of whether the right to erasure (the accurate name of the more famous “right to be forgotten”) as enshrined in Article 12 of Directive 95/46 also applies in the case of personal data of entrepreneurs recorded in the Public Registry of companies, if their organisation went bankrupt years ago. Curiously, the preliminary ruling question doesn’t specifically refer to the right to erasure, but to the obligation in Article 6(1)(e) for controllers not to retain the data longer than necessary to achieve the purpose for which they were collected.

In fact, Mr Manni had requested his regional Chamber of Commerce to erase his personal data from the Public Registry of Companies, after he found out that he was losing clients who performed background checks on him through a private company that specialised in finding information in the Public Registry. This happened because Mr Manni had been an administrator of a company that was declared bankrupt more than 10 years before the facts in the main proceedings. In fact, the former company itself was radiated from the Public Registry (§30).

Disclaimer! The Opinion is not yet available in English, but in another handful of official languages of the EU. Therefore, the following quotes are all my translation from French or Romanian.

AG Bot advised the Court to reply to the preliminary ruling questions in the sense that all personal data in the Public Registry of companies should be retained there indefinitely, irrespective of the fact that companies to whose administrators the data refer are still active or not. “Public Registries of companies cannot achieve their main purpose, namely the consolidation of legal certainty by disclosing, in accordance with the transparency principle, legally accurate information, if access to this information would not be allowed indefinitely to all third parties” (§98).

The AG adds that “the choice of natural persons to get involved in the economic life through a commercial company implies a permanent requirement of transparency. For this main reason, detailed throughout the Opinion, I consider that the interference in the the right to the protection of personal data that are registered in a Public Registry of companies, specifically ensuring their publicity for an indefinite period of time and aimed towards any person who asks for access to these data, is justified by the preponderant interest of third parties to access those data” (§100).

Restricting the circle of ‘interested third parties’ would be incompatible with the purpose of the Public Registry

Before reaching this conclusion, the AG dismissed a proposal by the Commission that suggested a limited access to the personal data of administrators of bankrupt companies could be ensured only for those third parties that “show a legitimate interest” in obtaining it.

The AG considered that this suggestion “cannot, at this stage of development of EU law, ensure a fair balance between the objective of protecting third parties and the right to the protection of personal data registered in Public Registries of companies” (§87). In this regard, he recalled that the objective to protect the interest of third parties as enshrined in the First Council Directive 68/151  “is provided for in a sufficiently wide manner so as to encompass not only the creditors of a company, but also, in general, all persons that want to obtain information regarding that company” (§88).

Earlier, the AG had also found that the suggestion to anonymise data regarding the administrators of bankrupt companies is not compatible with the historical function of the Public Registry and with the objective to protect third parties that is inherent to such registries. “The objective to establish a full picture of a bankrupt company is incompatible with processing anonymous data” (§78).

Throughout the Opinion, the AG mainly interprets the principles underpinning the First Council Directive 68/151/EC (of 9 March 1968 on co-ordination of safeguards which, for the protection of the interests of members and others, are required by Member States of companies within the meaning of the second paragraph of Article 58 of the Treaty, with a view to making such safeguards equivalent throughout the Community)  and it is apparent that it enjoys precedence over Directive 95/46/EC.

Finally: the reference to the GDPR

The AG never refers in his analysis to Article 12 of Directive 95/46,  which grants data subjects the right to erasure. However, come the last paragraph of the Opinion, the AG does refer to Article 17(3)(b) and (d) from Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (yes, the GDPR). He applies Article 17 GDPR to the facts of the case and mentions that the preceding analysis “is compatible” with it, because “this Article provides that the right to erasure of personal data, or ‘the right to be forgotten’, does not apply to a processing operation ‘for compliance with a legal obligation which requires processing by Union or Member State law to which the controller is subject or for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in the controller’ or ‘for archiving purposes in the public interest'” (§101).

While I find the Opinion of the AG clear and well argued, I have two comments. I wish he had referred more comprehensively to the fundamental rights aspect of the case when balancing the provisions of the two directives. But most of all, I wish he would have analysed the right to erasure itself, the conditions that trigger it and the exemptions under Article 13 of Directive 95/46.

My bet on the outcome of the case: the Court will follow the AG’s Opinion to a large extent. However, it may be more focused on the fundamental rights aspect of balancing the two Directives and it may actually analyse the content of the right to erasure and its exceptions. The outcome, however, is likely to be the same.

A small thing that bugs me about this case is that I find there is a differentiation between searching a Registry of Companies being interested in a company name and searching a Registry of Companies being interested in a specific natural person. I mean, all third parties may very well be interested in finding out everything there is to know about bankrupt Company X, discovering thus that Mr Manni was the administrator. To me, this does not seem to be the same situation as searching the Public Registry of companies using Mr Manni’s name to find out all about Mr Manni’s background. In §88 the AG even mentions, when recognising the all encompassing interest of every third party to access all information about a certain company indefinitely, that Directive 68/151 protects the interest of “all persons that want to obtain information regarding this company“. I know the case is about keeping or deleting the personal data of Mr Manni from the Registry. And ultimately it is important to keep the information there due to the general interest of knowing everything about the history of a company. However, does it make any difference for the lawfulness of certain processing operations related to the data in the Registry that the Registry of companies is used to create profiles of natural persons? I don’t know. But it’s something that bugged me while reading the Opinion. Moreover, if you compare this situation to the “clean slate” rules for certain offenders that have their data erased from the criminal record, it is even more bugging.  (Note: at §34 the AG specifies he is only referring in his Opinion to the processing of personal data by the Chamber of Commerce and not by private companies specialising in providing background information about entrepreneurs).

Fun fact #1

The GDPR made its ‘unofficial’ debut in the case-law of the CJEU in the Opinion of AG Jaaskinen in C-131/14 Google v. Spain delivered on 25 June 2013. In fact, it was precisely Article 17 that was referred to in this Opinion as well, in §110. There’s another reference to the GDPR in §56, mentioning the new rules on the field of application of EU data protection law. Back then, the text of the GDPR was merely a proposal of the Commission – nor the EP, or the Council had adopted their own versions of the text, before entering the trilogue which resulted in the adopted text of Regulation 2016/679.

Fun fact #2

AG Bot is the AG that the delivered the Opinion in the Schrems case as well. The Court followed his Opinion to a large extent for its Judgment. There are fair chances the Court will follow again his Opinion.

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Analysis of the AG Opinion in the “PNR Canada” Case: unlocking an “unprecedented and delicate” matter

AG Mengozzi delivered his Opinion in the EU-Canada PNR case (Opinion 1/15) on 8 September 2016. While his conclusions clearly indicate that, in part, the current form of the agreement between Canada and the EU “on the transfer and processing of Passenger Name Record data” is not compliant with EU primary law – and in particular with Articles 7, 8 and 52(1) of the Charter[1] and Article 16(2) TFEU[2], the AG seems to accept that PNR schemes in general (involving indiscriminate targeting, profiling, preemptive policing) are compatible with fundamental rights in the EU.

In summary, it seems to me that the AG’s message is: “if you do it unambiguously and transparently, under independent supervision, and without sensitive data, you can process PNR data of all travellers, creating profiles and targeting persons matching patterns of suspicious behaviour”.

This is problematic for the effectiveness of the right to the protection of personal data and the right to respect for private life. Even though the AG agrees that the scrutiny of an international agreement such as the EU-Canada PNR Agreement should not be looser than that of an ordinary adequacy decision or that of an EU Directive, and considers that both Schrems and Digital Rights Ireland should apply in this case, he doesn’t apply in all instances the rigorous scrutiny the Court uses in those two landmark judgments. One significant way in which he is doing this is by enriching the ‘strict necessity test’ so that it comprises a “fair balance” criterion and an “equivalent effectiveness” threshold (See Section 5).

On another hand, AG Mengozzi is quite strict with the safeguards he sees as essential in order to make PNR agreements such as the one in this case compatible with fundamental rights in the EU.

Data protection authorities have warned time and again that PNR schemes are not strictly necessary to fight terrorism, serious and transnational crimes – they are too invasive and their effectiveness has not yet been proven. The European Data Protection Supervisor – the independent advisor of the EU institutions on all legislation concerning processing of personal data, has issued a long series of Opinions on PNR schemes – be it in the form of international agreements on data transfers, adequacy decisions or EU legislation, always questioning their necessity and proportionality[3]. In the latest Opinion from this series, on the EU PNR Directive, the EDPS clearly states that the non-targeted and bulk collection and processing of data of the PNR scheme amount to a measure of general surveillance” (§63) and in the lack of appropriate and unambiguous evidence that such a scheme is necessary, the PNR scheme is not compliant with Articles 7, 8 and 52 of the Charter, Article 16 TFEU and Article 8 ECHR (§64).

The Article 29 Working Party also has a long tradition in questioning the idea itself of a PNR system. A good reflection of this is Opinion 7/2010, where the WP states that “the usefulness of large-scale profiling on the basis of passenger data must be questioned thoroughly, based on both scientific elements and recent studies” (p. 4) and declares that it is not satisfied with the evidence for the necessity of such systems.

The European Parliament suspended the procedure to conclude the Agreement and decided to use one of its new powers granted by the Treaty of Lisbon and asked the CJEU to issue an Opinion on the compliance of the Agreement with EU primary law (TFEU and the Charter).

Having the CJEU finally look at PNR schemes is a matter of great interest for all EU travellers, and not only them. Especially at a time like this, when it feels like surveillance is served to the people by states all over the world – from liberal democracies to authoritarian states, as an acceptable social norm.

General remarks: first-timers and wide implications

The AG acknowledges in the introductory part of the Opinion that the questions this case brought before the Court are “unprecedented and delicate” (§5). In fact, the AG observes later on in the Opinion that the “methods” applied to PNR data, once transferred, in order to identify individuals on the basis of patterns of behavior of concern are not at all provided for in the agreement and “seem to be entirely at the discretion of the Canadian authorities” (§164). This is why the AG states that one of the greatest difficulties of this case is that it “entails ascertaining … not merely what the agreement envisaged makes provision for, but also, and above all, what it has failed to make provision for” (§164).

The AG also makes it clear in the beginning of the Opinion that the outcome of this case has implications on the other “PNR” international agreements the EU concluded with Australia and the US and on the EU PNR Directive (§4). A straightforward example of a possible impact on these other international agreements, beyond analyzing their content, is the finding that the legal basis on which they were adopted is incomplete (they must be also based on Article 16 TFEU) and wrong (Article 82(1)(d) TFEU on judicial cooperation is incompatible as legal basis with PNR agreements).

The implications are even wider than the AG acknowledged. For instance, a legal instrument that could be impacted is the EU-US Umbrella Agreement – another international agreement on transfers of personal data from the EU to the US in the law enforcement area, which has both similarities and differences compared to the PNR agreements. In addition, an immediately affected legal process will be the negotiations that the European Commission is currently undertaking with Mexico for a PNR Agreement.

Even if it is not an international agreement, the adequacy decision based on the EU-US Privacy Shield deal could be impacted as well, especially with regard to the findings on the independence of the supervisory authority in the third country where data are transferred (See Section 6 for more on this topic).

Finally, the AG also mentions that this case allows the Court to “break the ice” in two matters:

  • It will examine for the first time the scope of Article 16(2) TFEU (§6) and
  • rule for the first time on the compatibility of a draft international agreement with the fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter, and more particularly with those in Article 7 and Article 8 (§7).

Therefore, the complexity and novelty of this case are considerable. And they are also a good opportunity for the CJEU to create solid precedents in such delicate matters.

I structured this post around the main ideas I found notable to look at and summarize, after reading the 328-paragraphs long Opinion. In order to make it easier to read, I’ve split it into 6 Sections, which you can find following the links below.

  1. De-mystifying Article 16 TFEU: yes, it is an appropriate legal basis for international agreements on transfers of personal data
  2. A look at the surface: it is not an adequacy decision, but it establishes adequacy
  3. An interference of “a not insignificant gravity”: systematic, transforming all passengers into potential suspects and amounting to preemptive policing
  4. Innovative thinking: Article 8(2) + Article 52(1) = conditions for justification of interference with Article 8(1)
  5. The awkward two level necessity test that convinced the AG the PNR scheme is acceptable
  6. The list of reasons why the Agreement is incompatible with the Charter and the Treaty

……………………………………………………….

[1] Article 7 – the right to respect for private life, Article 8 – the right to the protection of personal data, Article 52(1) – limitations of the exercise of fundamental rights.

[2] With regard to the obligation to have independent supervision of processing of personal data.

[3] See the latest one, Opinion 5/2015 on the EU PNR Directive and see the Opinion on the EU-Canada draft agreement.

***

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Section 1. De-mystifying Article 16 TFEU: yes, it is an appropriate legal basis for concluding international agreements on transfers of personal data

(Section 1 of the Analysis of the AG Opinion in the “PNR Canada” Case: unlocking an “unprecedented and delicate” matter)

Currently, the Council decision adopted for concluding the EU-Canada PNR agreement rests on two legal bases: Article 82(1)(d) TFEU – on judicial cooperation in criminal matters within the Union[1] and Article 87(2)(a) TFEU – on police cooperation in criminal matters within the Union[2], in conjunction with Articles 218(5) and 218(6)(a) TFEU – procedure to negotiate international agreements. In his Opinion on the EU-Canada PNR Agreement  in 2013, the European Data Protection Supervisor questioned the choice of the legal basis and recommended that the proposal be based on Article 16 TFEU “as a comprehensive legal basis”, in conjunction with the Articles on the procedure to conclude international agreements, considering that:

According to Article 1 of the Agreement, its purpose is to set out the conditions for the transfer and use of PNR data in order to, on the one hand, “ensure the security and safety of the public” and, on the other hand, “prescribe the means by which the data shall be protected”. In addition, the vast majority of provisions of the Agreement relate to the latter objective, i.e. the protection of personal data, including data security and integrity. (EDPS Opinion on EU-Canada PNR, §8).

The European Parliament asked the Court in its request for an Opinion if the police cooperation and judicial cooperation articles are an appropriate legal basis, or if the act should be based on Article 16 TFEU.

  1. Why it matters to have a correct legal basis

As the AG acknowledges, the choice of the appropriate legal basis for concluding an international agreement has “constitutional significance” (§40). “The use of an incorrect legal basis is therefore apt to invalidate the act concluding the agreement and thus to vitiate the European Union’s consent to be bound by that agreement” (§40). Therefore, an act adopted on the wrong legal basis can be invalidated by the Court.

First of all, the AG recalled the settled case-law of the Court that the choice of legal basis for an EU measure “must rest on objective factors amenable to judicial review, which include the purpose and the content of that measure” (§61). He also recalled that if the measure pursues a twofold purpose, which can be differentiated into a predominant and an incidental purpose, “the act must be based on a single legal basis, namely, that required by the main or predominant purpose or component” (§61). The Court accepts only as an exception that an act may be founded on various legal bases corresponding to the number of objectives, if those are “inseparably linked, without one being incidental in relation to the other” (§62).

2. Are the two objectives of the Agreement inseparable?

The AG identifies the two objectives of the agreement – combating terrorism and other serious transnational crimes and respecting private life and the protection of personal data and he struggles to argue that the agreement “pursues two objectives and has two components that are inseparable” (§78) and he finds it difficult “to determine which of those objectives prevails over the other” (§79).

In my view, it is not difficult to identify the protection of personal data as the predominant purpose (think of causa proxima in legal theory) and the fight against terrorism as the incidental purpose (think of causa remota in legal theory).

In the Agreement, according to Article 1, “the Parties set out the conditions for the transfer and use of PNR data to ensure the security and safety of the public and prescribe the means by which the data is protected”. In other words, first and foremost, the Agreement sets out rules for transferring and using PNR data, including by prescribing the means by which the data is protected (causa proxima). This is done to ultimately ensure the security and safety of the public (causa remota).

This conclusion is reinforced by the content of the Agreement, which manifestly contains rules mainly relating to the processing of personal data – Article 2 Definitions, Article 3 – Use of PNR data, Article 5 – Adequacy and in the Chapter titled Safeguards applicable to the use of PNR data”, with Articles from 7 to 21, while the last 9 articles concern “implementing and final provisions” of a technical nature. It is also reinforced by the fact that the transfer of PNR data on the EU side is done from private companies and by the fact that, contrary to what the AG argues, the Agreement itself does not establish an obligation to transfer data.

The AG explains that “it is incorrect to claim that the agreement envisaged lays down no obligation for the airlines to transfer the PNR data to the Canadian competent authority” (§92). While he acknowledges that it is true that Article 4(1) of the Agreement states that the Union is to ensure only that air carriers “are not prevented” from transferring PNR data to the Canadian competent authority, he interprets that Article “in conjunction with Articles 5, 20 and 21 of the Agreement” in the sense that “air carriers are entitled and in practice required to provide the Canadian competent authority systematically with access to the PNR data for the purposes defined in Article 3 of the agreement envisaged” (§92).

In fact, Article 5 of the Agreement establishes that the Canadian Competent Authority “is deemed to ensure” an adequate level of data protection (therefore, indeed, air carriers would not be prevented to transfer data because of data protection concerns), Article 20 obliges the air carriers to use the “push method” when they transfer data and Article 21 sets out rules on the frequency of the requests of PNR data by the Canadian Competent Authority. While it is true that the last two articles set out rules for how the data should be transferred, neither contains a positive obligation for the air carriers to transfer the data.

Therefore, it seems to be in fact clear that the purpose of PNR arrangements like the one in the present case is to make sure that EU data protection law does not prevent air carriers to send data of travellers to authorities of third countries systematically, in bulk and without an ex ante control.

As the AG points out, “if Article 16 TFEU were taken as the sole legal basis of the act concluding the agreement envisaged, that would alter the status of the Kingdom of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as those Member States would then be directly and automatically bound by the agreement, contrary to Article 29 of the agreement envisaged” (§51). This would happen because the Agreement would not be placed anymore under the former third pillar (law enforcement, police and judicial cooperation), which would not give the right to Denmark, Ireland and UK to opt out of it. Therefore, the Agreement would automatically apply to all EU Member States. However, this argument should not play a role in deciding which is the appropriate legal basis, as it is not linked to the purpose or the content of the Agreement at all.

Nevertheless, the AG established that the purposes of fighting crime and respecting data protection rights are inseparable. This is in any case a valuable further step, considering that the Council and the Commission completely excluded Article 16 TFEU from the legal bases. So which are the appropriate legal bases the AG recommends?

3. The “judicial cooperation” Article, found to be irrelevant

The AG finds that “as currently drafted, the agreement envisaged does not really seem to contribute to facilitating cooperation between the judicial or equivalent authorities of the Member States” (§108), within the meaning of Article 82(1)(d) TFEU. He sees as incidental the possibility for judicial authorities of Canada to send in particular cases PNR data to judicial authorities in the EU, which would further contribute to judicial cooperation within the EU.

Interestingly, the AG mentions that this conclusion is not affected by the fact that the Council decisions concluding the PNR Agreements with US and Australia are also based on Article 82(1)(d). He reminds that “the legal basis used for the adoption of other Union measures that might display similar characteristics is irrelevant” (§109).

However, the fact remains that if Article 82(1)(d) is not a proper legal basis for the act concluding the EU-Canada PNR Agreement, it is most probably not a proper legal basis for the other EU acts concluding PNR Agreements.

4. The “police cooperation” Article, found to be relevant

Even if he saw that the agreement does not in fact facilitate judicial cooperation within the Union, the AG considers that, on another hand, it does facilitate police cooperation within the Union. To this end, he is building his argumentation mainly on Article 6 of the Agreement, which is the only one referring to “Police and judicial cooperation”.

Indeed, as recalled in §105, “under Article 6(2) of the agreement envisaged Canada is required, at the request of, among others, the police or a judicial authority of a Member State of the Union, to share, in specific cases, PNR data or analytical information containing PNR data obtained under the agreement envisaged in order to prevent or detect ‘within the European Union’ a terrorist offence or serious transnational crime.”

However, what the AG does not refer to in his analysis is the last sentence of Article 6(2) of the Agreement, which states that Canada shall make this information available in accordance with agreements and arrangements on law enforcement, judicial cooperation, or information sharing, between Canada and Europol, Eurojust or that Member State”. Therefore, sharing PNR data obtained by Canada from air carriers in the conditions set out in the Canada-PNR Agreement with Europol, Eurojust or a specific MS will be done in accordance with separate agreements. In conclusion, there are completely different agreements that have as purpose sharing of information to ensure both police and judicial cooperation between Canada and the competent authorities of the EU, which apply to sharing PNR data as well.

Finally, the AG considers that indeed Article 87(2)(a) is properly set out as legal basis of the act concluding the agreement envisaged, but he also states that it seems to him it is “insufficient to enable the Union to conclude that agreement”. Therefore, he proposes the act concluding the Agreement to be also based on Article 16(2) TFEU.

This conclusion prompts a much expected first substantive analysis of the content of Article 16(2) TFEU in an act of the Court of Justice after the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

5. Relevance of Article 16(2) TFEU to serve as legal basis for concluding the EU-Canada PNR Agreement

 The AG recalls that “the content of the agreement envisaged supports that [data protection – my addition] objective, in particular the terms in the chapter on ‘Safeguards applicable to the processing of PNR data’, consisting of Articles 7 to 21 of the agreement envisaged” (§113). Therefore, he concludes that, in his view, “action taken by the Union must necessarily be based … on the first subparagraph of Article 16(2) TFEU, which, it will be recalled, confers on the Parliament and the Council the task of laying down the rules relating to the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data by, inter alia, the Member States when carrying out activities which fall within the scope of application of EU law and the rules relating to the free movement of such data” (§114).

The AG further develops the three main principles that underlie this approach.

Firstly, he reminds that the EU is competent to conclude international agreements in the field of data protection (Article 216(1) TFEU in conjunction with Article 16 TFEU). In addition, “there is no doubt that the terms of the agreement envisaged must be characterized as “rules” relating to the protection of the data of natural persons, within the meaning of the first subparagraph of Article 16(1) TFEU, and intended to bind the contracting parties” (§115). (Note: considering Article 16(1) does not have subparagraphs, probably there was an error of transcript and this reference should have been either to the first subparagraph of Article 16(2) or simply to Article 16(1)).

Secondly, the AG adds that the first subparagraph of Article 16(2) “is intended to constitute the legal basis for all rules adopted at EU level relating to the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of their personal data, including the rules coming within the framework of the adoption of measures relating to the provisions of the FEU Treaty on police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters” (§116). He explains thus why Article 16 TFEU is relevant even if the act concluding the Agreement would also be based on an Article providing for police cooperation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the AG clearly states that Article 16(2) cannot be considered irrelevant for the agreement because the protecting measures which can be adopted under that Article relate to the processing of data by authorities of the Member States and not, as in this instance, to the transfer of data previously obtained by private entities (the air carriers) to a third country (§118). This is a key interpretation, because, indeed, the ad litteram wording of Article 16 is restrictive – it refers to putting in place rules by the Union regarding processing of personal data by:

  • Union institutions, bodies, offices and agencies and
  • By the Member States when carrying out activities which fall within the scope of Union law.

Applying Article 16 ad litteram would mean that the Union does not have the competence to regulate how private entities process data. As the AG convincingly explains, “to put a strictly literal interpretation on the new legal basis constituted by the first subparagraph of Article 16(2) TFEU would be tantamount to splitting up the system for the protection of personal data. Such an interpretation would run counter to the intention of the High Contracting Parties to create, in principle, a single legal basis expressly authorising the EU to adopt rules relating to the protection of the personal data of natural persons. It would therefore represent a step backwards from the preceding scheme based on the Treaty provisions relating to the internal market, which would be difficult to explain. That strictly literal interpretation of Article 16 TFEU would thus have the consequence of depriving that provision of a large part of its practical effect” (§119).

 The AG concludes that the answer to the question about the legal basis is that “in the light of the objectives and the components of the agreement envisaged, which are inseparably linked, the act concluding that agreement must in my view be based on the first subparagraph of Article 16(2) TFEU and Article 87(2)(a) TFEU as its substantive legal bases” (§120).

Before going through the analysis of the compliance of the Agreement with Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, it’s worth having a look at one of the fundamental issues raised by the Agreement, but which, unfortunately, was only looked at briefly and with no consequence.

 

……………………………………………………….

[1] “The European Parliament and the Council, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, shall adopt measures to:

(d) facilitate cooperation between judicial or equivalent authorities of the Member States in relation to proceedings in criminal matters and the enforcement of decisions.”

[2] 1. The Union shall establish police cooperation involving all the Member States’ competent authorities, including police, customs and other specialised law enforcement services in relation to the prevention, detection and investigation of criminal offences.

  1. For the purposes of paragraph 1, the European Parliament and the Council, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, may establish measures concerning:

(c) common investigative techniques in relation to the detection of serious forms of organised crime.

Section 2. A look at the surface: it is not an adequacy decision, but it establishes adequacy

(Section 2 of the Analysis of the AG Opinion in the “PNR Canada” Case: unlocking an “unprecedented and delicate” matter)

One of the fundamental issues concerning agreements such as the one in the present case is how do these agreements relate to the concept of “adequacy finding” for the purposes of transfers of personal data from the EU to third countries.

While it is straightforward looking at their nature that they are not unilateral acts issued by the European Commission to establish that a third country or the authorities of a third country have an adequate level of protection (as was the Decision invalidated by the Schrems judgement), in essence these agreements have the same effect as that of adequacy decisions: they establish a presumption that the legal system at the receiving end of a data transfer from the EU ensures an adequate level of data protection, eliminating thus impediments of transfers based on concerns that the data are not properly protected at the receiving end.

While the process leading to an adequacy decision by the Commission is long and involves a thorough analysis of the legal system of the third country in order to ascertain that it provides an essentially equivalent level of protection in theory and in practice, the conclusion of an international agreement involves a high level negotiation and commitments taken by the third country that it would ensure appropriate protection. It is more difficult to ascertain and control a posteriori if this indeed happens in practice. Moreover, if the commitments taken by the third country are not sufficient in the Agreement, a clause establishing that the transfers to that country are deemed to comply with EU data protection law may very well be considered as breaching Article 8(1) of the Charter. The CJEU stated in Schrems that the requirements for ensuring lawful international transfers of personal data stem from Article 8(1) of the Charter and the general obligation enshrined therein “to protect personal data” (§71-§72 of Schrems).

These issues are extremely challenging and the current proceedings would be a very good opportunity to address them. However, the AG only marginally touches this question and he does that only to argue against the fact that data protection is the predominant purpose of the Agreement and to argue in favour of a strict review of the limitations brought by the provisions of the Agreement to the exercise of Article 8 of the Charter.

First, in §93, he states that “the object of the agreement envisaged cannot principally be treated as equivalent to an adequacy decision, comparable to the decision which the Commission had adopted under the 2006 Agreement”. He continues by arguing that “both the aim and the content of the agreement envisaged show, on the contrary, that that agreement is intended to reconcile the two objectives which it pursues and that those objectives are inseparably linked” (i.e. – data protection and fight against terrorism) (§93).

However, about a hundred of paragraphs later, after he recalls the finding in §93 that “the agreement envisaged cannot be reduced to a decision finding that the Canadian competent authority guarantees an adequate level of protection” (§203), he recognizes that “Article 5 of the agreement envisaged does indeed provide that, subject to compliance with the terms of that agreement, the Canadian Competent Authority is to be deemed to provide an adequate level of protection, within the meaning of relevant Union data protection law, for the processing and use of PNR data” (§203).

Moreover, in the same paragraph, the AG even adds that “the contracting parties’ intention is indeed to ensure that the high level of personal data protection achieved in the Union may be guaranteed when the PNR data is transferred to Canada” (§203).

The arguments above follow after in paragraph 200 the AG finds that the provisions of the agreement should be subject to a strict review by the Court regarding their compliance with the requirements resulting also from “the adequacy of the level of protection of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Union when Canada processes and uses the PNR data pursuant to the agreement envisaged”.

This analysis seems to me contradictory – both by comparing §93 and §203, and by comparing statements within §203. In any case, the consequences of the intention to establish adequacy through an international agreement are not further analysed. The only conclusion the AG draws after identifying the underlying intention of the parties to conclude this agreement is just that “I see no reason why the Court should not carry out a strict review of compliance with the principle of proportionality” (§203). Moreover, he further expands this argumentation by referring to the Schrems case and findings therein concerning “essentially equivalence” and how the means ensuring this equivalence must be “effective in practice” (§204).

Hopefully, the Court in its final Opinion will make a more in depth analysis of this issue.