Tag Archives: EU law

What’s new in research: networks of control built on digital tracking, new models of internet governance

pdpEcho is kicking off 2017 with a brief catalogue of interesting recently published research that sets the tone for the new year.

1474043869-800pxFirst, Wolfie Christl and Sarah Spiekermann‘s report on “Networks of Control”, published last month, is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how the digital economy functions on the streams of data we all generate, while reflecting on the ethical implications of this economic model and proposing new models that would try keep the surveillance society afar. Second, a new report of the Global Commission of Internet Governance explores global governance gaps created by existing global governance structures developed in the analog age. Third, the American Academy of Sciences recently published a report with concrete proposals on how to reconcile the use of different public and private sources of data for government statistics with privacy and confidentiality. Last, a volume by Angela Daly that was recently published by Hart Publishing explores how EU competition law, sector specific regulation, data protection and human rights law could tackle concentrations of power for the benefit of users.

 

  1. “Networks of control. A Report on Corporate Surveillance, Digital Tracking, Big Data & Privacy”, by Wolfie Christl, Sarah Spiekermann  [OPEN ACCESS]

“Around the same time as Apple introduced its first smartphone and Facebook reached 30 million users in 2007, online advertisers started to use individual-level data to profile and target users individually (Deighton and Johnson 2013, p. 45). Less than ten years later, ubiquitous and real-time corporate surveillance has become a “convenient byproduct of ordinary daily transactions and interactions” (De Zwart et al 2014, p. 746). We have entered a surveillance society as David Lyon foresaw it already in the early 1990s; a society in which the practices of “social sorting”, the permanent monitoring and classification of the whole population through information technology and software algorithms, have silently become an everyday reality” (p. 118).

One of the realities we need to take into account when assessing this phenomenon is that “Opting out of digital tracking becomes increasingly difficult. Individuals can hardly avoid consenting to data collection without opting out of much of modern life. In addition, persons who don’t participate in data collection, who don’t have social networking accounts or too thin credit reports, could be judged as “suspicious” and “too risky” in advance” (p. 129).

The authors of the report explain that the title “Networks of Control” is justified “by the fact that there is not one single corporate entity that by itself controls today’s data flows. Many companies co-operate at a large scale to complete their profiles about us through various networks they have built up” (p. 7). They also explain that they want to close a gap created by the fact that “the full degree and scale of personal data collection, use and – in particular – abuse has not been scrutinized closely enough”, despite the fact that “media and special interest groups are aware of these developments for a while now” (p. 7).

What I found valuable in the approach of the study is that it also brings forward a topic that is rarely discussed when analysing Big Data, digital tracking and so on: the attempt of such practices to change behaviour at scale. “Data richness is increasingly used to correct us or incentivize us to correct ourselves. It is used to “nudge” us to act differently. As a result of this continued nudging, influencing and incentivation, our autonomy suffers (p. 7)”.

A chapter authored by Professor Sarah Spiekermann explores the ethical implications of the networks of control. She applies three ethical normative theories to personal data markets: “The Utilitarian calculus, which is the original philosophy underlying modern economics (Mill 1863/1987). The Kantian duty perspective, which has been a cornerstone for what we historically call “The Enlightenment” (Kant 1784/2009), and finally Virtue Ethics, an approach to life that originates in Aristotle’s thinking about human flourishing and has seen considerable revival over the past 30 years (MacIntyre 1984)” (p. 131).

Methodologically, the report is based on “a systematic literature review and analysis of hundreds of documents and builds on previous research by scholars in various disciplines such as computer science, information technology, data security, economics, marketing, law, media studies, sociology and surveillance studies” (p. 10).

2. Global Commission on Internet Governance “Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet”, by Rebecca MacKinnon, Nathalie Maréchal and Priya Kumar  [OPEN ACCESS]

The report shows that “as of July 2016, more than 3.4 billion people were estimated to have joined the global population of Internet users, a population with fastest one-year growth in India (a stunning 30 percent) followed by strong double digit growth in an assortment of countries across Africa (Internet Live Stats 2016a; 2016b)” (p. 1).

“Yet the world’s newest users have less freedom to speak their minds, gain access to information or organize around civil, political and religious interests than those who first logged on to the Internet five years ago” (p. 1).

Within this framework, the report explores the fact that “ICT sector companies have played a prominent role in Internet governance organizations, mechanisms and processes over the past two decades. Companies in other sectors also play an expanding role in global governance. Multinational companies wield more power than many governments over not only digital information flows but also the global flow of goods, services and labour: onethird of world trade is between corporations, and another third is intra-firm, between subsidiaries of the same multinational enterprise” (p. 5).

The authors also look at the tensions between governments and global companies with regard to requests for access to data, to weaken encryption and facilitate censorship in ways that contravene international human rights standards.

3. “Innovations in Federal Statistics: Combining Data Sources While Protecting Privacy”, by National Academy of Sciences [OPEN ACCESS]. 

The tension between privacy on one hand and statistical data and censuses on the other hand compelled the German Constitutional Court to create in the ’80s “the right to informational self-determination”. Could statistics bring a significant reform of such sort to the US? Never say never.

According to epic.org, the US National Academy of Sciences recently published a report that examines how disparate federal data sources can be used for policy research while protecting privacy.

The study shows that in the decentralised US statistical system, there are 13 agencies whose mission is primarily the creation and dissemination of statistics and more than 100 agencies who engage in statistical activities. There is a need for stronger coordination and collaboration to enable access to and evaluation of administrative and private-sector data sources for federal statistics. For this purpose, the report advices that “a new entity or an existing entity should be designated to facilitate secure access to data for statistical purposes to enhance the quality of federal statistics. Privacy protections would have to be fundamental to the mission of this entity“. Moreover, “the data for which it has responsibility would need to have legal protections for confidentiality and be protected using the strongest privacy protocols offered to personally identifiable information while permitting statistical use”.

One of the conclusions of the report is that “Federal statistical agencies should adopt modern database, cryptography, privacy-preserving and privacy-enhancing technologies”. 

4. Private Power, Online Information Flows and EU Law. Mind The Gap, by Angela Daly, Hart Publishing [50 pounds]

“This monograph examines how European Union law and regulation address concentrations of private economic power which impede free information flows on the Internet to the detriment of Internet users’ autonomy. In particular, competition law, sector specific regulation (if it exists), data protection and human rights law are considered and assessed to the extent they can tackle such concentrations of power for the benefit of users.

Using a series of illustrative case studies, of Internet provision, search, mobile devices and app stores, and the cloud, the work demonstrates the gaps that currently exist in EU law and regulation. It is argued that these gaps exist due, in part, to current overarching trends guiding the regulation of economic power, namely neoliberalism, by which only the situation of market failure can invite ex ante rules, buoyed by the lobbying of regulators and legislators by those in possession of such economic power to achieve outcomes which favour their businesses.

Given this systemic, and extra-legal, nature of the reasons as to why the gaps exist, solutions from outside the system are proposed at the end of each case study. This study will appeal to EU competition lawyers and media lawyers.”

Enjoy the read! (Unless the reform of the EU e-Privacy rules is taking much of your time these days – in this case, bookmark the reports of interest and save them for later).
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Data retention, only possible under strict necessity: targeted retention and pre-authorised access to retained data

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘the Court’ or ‘CJEU’) gave a second judgment this week on the compatibility of data retention measures with the fundamental rights of persons as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (in Joined Cases C-203/15 and C-698/15 Tele2Sverige). The Court confirmed all its findings from the earlier Digital Rights Ireland judgment and took the opportunity to clarify and nuance some of its initial key-findings (for an analysis of the DRI judgment, see my article published in 2015).

The two cases that were joined by the Court emerged in the fallout of the invalidation of the Data Retention Directive by the CJEU in the DRI judgment. Even if that Directive was declared invalid for breaching fundamental rights, most of the national laws that transposed it in the Member States were kept in force invoking Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive. This Article provided for an exception to the rule of ensuring confidentiality of communications, which allowed Member States to “inter alia, adopt legislative measures providing for the retention of data for a limited period justified on the grounds laid down in this paragraph”. What the Member States seem to have disregarded with their decision to keep national data retention laws in force was that the same paragraph, last sentence, provided that “all the measures referred to in this paragraph (including data retention – my note) shall be in accordance with the general principles of Community law” (see §91 and §92 of the judgment). Respect for fundamental rights is one of those principles.

The Tele2Sverige case was initiated by a telecommunications service provider that followed the decision of the Court in DRI and stopped to retain data, because it considered that the national law requiring it do retain data was in breach of EU law. The Swedish authorities did not agree with this interpretation and this is how the Court was given the opportunity to clarify the relationship between national data retention law and EU law after the invalidation of the Data Retention Directive. The Watson case originates in the UK, was initiated by individuals and refers to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014(DRIPA).

In summary, the Court found that “national legislation which, for the purpose of fighting crime, provides for general and indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data of all subscribers and registered users relating to all means of electronic communication” is in breach of Article 7 (right to private life), Article 8 (right to the protection of personal data) and Article 11 (right to freedom of speech) from the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The Court clarified that such legislation is precluded by Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive. (See §1 from the executive part of the judgment)

Moreover, the Court found that national legislation in the field of the ePrivacy Directive that regulates the access of competent national authorities to retained data is incompatible with the three fundamental rights mentioned above, as long as:

  1. the objective pursued by that access, in the context of fighting crime, is not restricted solely to fighting serious crime;
  2. access is not subject to prior review by a court or an independent administrative authority;
  3. there is no requirement that the data concerned should be retained within the European Union (§2 of the operative part of the judgment).

There are a couple of remarkable findings of the Court in the Tele2Sverige/Watson judgment, analysed below. Brace yourselves for a long post. But it’s worth it. I’ll be looking at (1) how indiscriminate retention of metadata interferes with freedom of speech, (2) why data retention is merely an exception of the principle of confidentiality of communications and must not become the rule, (3) why the Court considers retaining on a generalised basis metadata is a far-reaching intrusion in the right to private life, (4) what is “targeted retention” and under what conditions the Court sees it acceptable and, finally (5) what is the impact of all of this on the Privacy Shield and PNR schemes.

 

(1) Indiscriminate retention of metadata interferes with freedom of speech

Even though none of the preliminary ruling questions asked the Court to look at compliance of national data retention measures also in the light of Article 11 Charter (freedom of speech), the Court did so by its own motion.

This was needed so that the Court finishes what it began in DRI. In that previous case, the Court referred to Article 11 Charter in §28, replying to a specific preliminary ruling question, by mentioning that:

“it is not inconceivable that the retention of the data in question might have an effect on the use, by subscribers or registered users, of the means of communication covered by that directive and, consequently, on their exercise of the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 11 of the Charter”.

However, it never analysed if that was the case. In §70, the Court just stated that, after finding the Directive to be invalid because it was not compliant with Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, “there is no need to examine the validity of Directive 2006/24 in the light of Article 11 of the Charter”.

This time, the Court developed its argument. It started by underlying that data retention legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings “raises questions relating to compatibility not only with Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, which are expressly referred to in the questions referred for a preliminary ruling, but also with the freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 11 of the Charter” (§92).

The Court continued by emphasising that the importance of freedom of expression must be taken into consideration when interpreting Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive “in the light of the particular importance accorded to that freedom in any democratic society” (§93). “That fundamental right (freedom of expression), guaranteed in Article 11 of the Charter, constitutes one of the essential foundations of a pluralist, democratic society, and is one of the values on which, under Article 2 TEU, the Union is founded” (§93), it continues.

The Court justifies the link between data retention and freedom of expression by slightly more confidently (compared to DRI) stating that:

“the retention of traffic and location data could nonetheless have an effect on the use of means of electronic communication and, consequently, on the exercise by the users thereof of their freedom of expression, guaranteed in Article 11 of the Charter” (§101)

The operative part of the judgment clearly states that Articles 7, 8 and 11 of the Charter preclude data retention legislation such as that in the main proceedings.

(2) The exception to the “principle of confidentiality” must not become the rule

The Court refers several times to a “principle of confidentiality of communications” (§85, §90, §95, §115). It explains in §85 that this principle is established by the ePrivacy Directive and “implies, inter alia, (…) that, as a general rule, any person other than the users is prohibited from storing, without the consent of the users concerned, the traffic data related to electronic communications. The only exceptions relate to persons lawfully authorised in accordance with Article 15(1) of that directive and to the technical storage necessary for conveyance of a communication.”

With regard to the first exception, the Court recalls that, because Article 15(1) is construed so as “to restrict the scope of the obligation of principle to ensure confidentiality of communications and related traffic data”, it “must, in accordance with the Court’s settled case-law, be interpreted strictly” (§89). The Court adds, using strong language:

“That provision cannot, therefore, permit the exception to that obligation of principle and, in particular, to the prohibition on storage of data, laid down in Article 5 of Directive 2002/58, to become the rule, if the latter provision is not to be rendered largely meaningless” (§89).

In any case, the Court adds, all exceptions adopted pursuant to Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive must be in accordance with the general principles of EU law, which include the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter (§91) and must strictly have one of the objectives enumerated in Article 15(1) of the ePrivacy Directive (§90).

As for the second derogation to the principle, the Court looks at recitals 22 and 26 of the ePrivacy Directive and affirms that the retention of traffic data is permitted “only to the extent necessary and for the time necessary for the billing and marketing of services and the provision of value added services. (…) As regards, in particular, the billing of services, that processing is permitted only up to the end of the period during which the bill may be lawfully challenged or legal proceedings brought to obtain payment. Once that period has elapsed, the data processed and stored must be erased or made anonymous” (§85).

(3) A”very far-reaching” and “particularly serious” interference

The Court observed that the national data retention laws at issue in the main proceedings “provides for a general and indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data of all subscribers and registered users relating to all means of electronic communication, and that it imposes on providers of electronic communications services an obligation to retain that data systematically and continuously, with no exceptions” (§97).

The data retained is metadata and is described in detail in §98. The Court confirmed its assessment in DRI that metadata “taken as a whole, is liable to allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained, such as everyday habits, permanent or temporary places of residence, daily or other movements, the activities carried out, the social relationships of those persons and the social environments frequented by them” (§99). It also added that this data “provides the means (…) of establishing a profile of the individuals concerned, information that is no less sensitive, having regard to the right to privacy, than the actual content of communications” (§99).

The Court went further to emphasise that this kind of undiscriminating gathering of data represents a “very far-reaching” and “particularly serious” interference in the fundamental rights to private life and protection of personal data (§100). Moreover, “he fact that the data is retained without the subscriber or registered user being informed is likely to cause the persons concerned to feel that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance” (§100).

The Court indicates that such a far-reaching interference can only be justified by the objective of fighting serious crime (§102). And even in this case, the objective of fighting serious crime does not justify in itself “general and indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data” (§103). The measures must, in addition, be strictly necessary to achieve this objective (§106).

The Court found that the national legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings does not comply with this request, because (§105):

  • it “covers, in a generalised manner, all subscribers and registered users and all means of electronic communication as well as all traffic data, provides for no differentiation, limitation or exception according to the objective pursued”.
  • “It is comprehensive in that it affects all persons using electronic communication services, even though those persons are not, even indirectly, in a situation that is liable to give rise to criminal proceedings”.
  • It “applies even to persons for whom there is no evidence capable of suggesting that their conduct might have a link, even an indirect or remote one, with serious criminal offences”.
  • “it does not provide for any exception, and consequently it applies even to persons whose communications are subject, according to rules of national law, to the obligation of professional secrecy”.

(4) Targeted data retention is permissible. Here is a list with all conditions:

The Court spells out that fundamental rights do not prevent a Member State from adopting “legislation permitting, as a preventive measure, the targeted retention of traffic and location data, for the purpose of fighting serious crime, provided that the retention of data is limited, with respect to:

  • the categories of data to be retained,
  • the means of communication affected,
  • the persons concerned and
  • the retention period adopted, to what is strictly necessary” (§108).

In addition, such legislation must:

  • “lay down clear and precise rules governing the scope and application of such a data retention measure and imposing minimum safeguards, so that the persons whose data has been retained have sufficient guarantees of the effective protection of their personal data against the risk of misuse.
  • indicate in what circumstances and under which conditions a data retention measure may, as a preventive measure, be adopted, thereby ensuring that such a measure is limited to what is strictly necessary” §109().

Other conditions that need to be fulfilled for a data retention legislation to be considered compatible with fundamental rights are indicated directly or indirectly by the Court in further paragraphs.

Such legislation must:

  • be restricted to “retention in relation to data pertaining to a particular time period and/or geographical area and/or a group of persons likely to be involved, in one way or another, in a serious crime, or
  • persons who could, for other reasons, contribute, through their data being retained, to fighting crime” (§106).
  • “meet objective criteria, that establish a connection between the data to be retained and the objective pursued. In particular, such conditions must be shown to be such as actually to circumscribe, in practice, the extent of that measure and, thus, the public affected” (§110).
  • “be based on objective evidence which makes it possible to identify a public whose data is likely to reveal a link, at least an indirect one, with serious criminal offences, and to contribute in one way or another to fighting serious crime or to preventing a serious risk to public security” (§111).
  • “lay down clear and precise rules indicating in what circumstances and under which conditions the providers of electronic communications services must grant the competent national authorities access to the data. (…) a measure of that kind must be legally binding under domestic law” (§117).
  • “lay down the substantive and procedural conditions governing the access of the competent national authorities to the retained data” (§118).
  • provide that data must be “retained within the European Union” (§122).
  • provide for “the irreversible destruction of the data at the end of the data retention period” (§122).
  • must “ensure review, by an independent authority, of compliance with the level of protection guaranteed by EU law with respect to the protection of individuals in relation to the processing of personal data, that control being expressly required by Article 8(3) of the Charter” (§123).

Other specific conditions emerge with regard to access of competent authorities to the retained data. Access:

  • “can be granted, in relation to the objective of fighting crime, only to the data of individuals suspected of planning, committing or having committed a serious crime or of being implicated in one way or another in such a crime” (§119). [The Court refers here to the ECtHR cases of Zacharov and Szabo, after a long series of privacy related cases where it did not refer at all to the ECtHR case-law].
  • must be subject to “a prior review carried out either by a court or by an independent administrative body” (…) “the decision of that court or body should be made following a reasoned request by those authorities submitted, inter alia, within the framework of procedures for the prevention, detection or prosecution of crime” (§120). The only exception for the prior review are “cases of validly established urgency” (§120).
  • must be notified by authorities to the persons affected “under the applicable national procedures, as soon as that notification is no longer liable to jeopardise the investigations being undertaken by those authorities. That notification is, in fact, necessary to enable the persons affected to exercise, inter alia, their right to a legal remedy” (§121).
  • must be restricted solely to fighting serious crime (§125).

(5) Possible effects on the Privacy Shield and on PNR schemes

This judgment could have indirect effects on the “Privacy Shield” and slightly more immediate effects on Passenger Name Records schemes.

The indirect effect on the Privacy Shield and on all other adequacy schemes could only manifest in the context of a challenge of such transfer instruments before the CJEU. The seriousness with which the Court of Justice detailed all conditions that must be met by a legislative measure providing for a particular processing of personal data to be compliant with the fundamental rights to private life and to the protection of personal data strengthen the condition of “essentially equivalence”.

In other words, it will be difficult to convince the Court that a third country that allows collection of metadata (and all the more so content of communications) on a large scale and access to that data which is not made under the supervision of an independent authority, provides an adequate level of protection that would lawfully allow transfers of data from the EU to that third country. (For comparison, the CJEU referred to the Digital Rights Ireland case for 8 times and in key findings in its judgment in Schrems).

As for PNR schemes, the effects may come sooner and more directly, as we are waiting for the Court’s Opinion in Avis 1/15 on the compliance of the EU-PNR Canada agreement with fundamental rights. It is to be expected that the Court will copiously refer back to its new list of conditions for access by authorities to retained personal data when looking at how all PNR data is directly transferred by companies to law enforcement authorities in a third country, with no limitations.

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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.

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(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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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.

 

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[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.