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 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 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 – “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” that carries out “processing of personal data” 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.
 Article 3 of Directive 68/151.
 Article 6(1)(e) of Directive 95/46.
 Article 2(a) of Directive 95/46.
 Article 2(d) of Directive 95/46.
 Article 2(b) of Directive 95/46.
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