Data Protection: ECJ Judgment on Spanish Legislative Lapses

December 28, 2011

The Spanish Supreme Court’s judgments of 15 July 2010 on the two cases brought by the Spanish National Association of Credit Institutions (‘ASNEF’) and the Federation of Electronic Commerce and Direct Marketing (‘FECEMD’) reviewed some of the most controversial obligations in Spanish data protection law. The plaintiffs questioned the legality of a number of provisions both from the Spanish Data Protection Act 15/1999 (DPA) and its regulation set up by the Royal Decree 1720/2007.

The Supreme Court judgment declared four Articles in the Royal Decree 1720/2007 null. The Supreme Court also considered it necessary to seek a preliminary ruling from the ECJ regarding the controversial Articles of the DPA. It should be noted that other organisations, including trade unions, the major communications operators in Spain and a communications consumer association, decided to take part in the process as intervening parties; thus illustrating the importance of what was being decided in this particular case.

On 24 November 2011 the ECJ gave its preliminary ruling. It called into question the work of the Spanish legislator in drafting the relevant provisions of the DPA and Royal Decree.

What is wrong with Spanish law?

While the grounds used by the Spanish Supreme Court to declare the four Articles of Royal Decree 1720/2007 null were based on the creation of obligations which are additional to those already set out in the DPA, the ECJ also considered that the Spanish legislator added extra conditions to those required by the EU Directive 95/46/EC (the EU Directive) when implementing this piece of legislation into national law.

Specifically, the ECJ judges the implementation of Article 7(j) (which addresses the principle of ‘legitimate interest’ of the controller or the recipient of the personal data) as an exception to the obligation to request the consent of the data subject for processing their personal data.

The Spanish legislator implements this Article by stating that, in the absence of the data subject’s consent, and in order to allow such processing of that data subject’s personal data as is necessary to pursue a legitimate interest of the data controller or third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, it is required that not only must the fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject be respected, but also that the data must be collected from publicly available sources.

The EU Directive allows the application of the principle of legitimate interest in any case, although it must always be balanced against the potential damage to the fundamental rights and liberties of the affected data subject.

Regardless of the EU Directive’s language, the Spanish provision does not allow this principle to apply unless data had been collected from public sources. The fact that data are collected from publicly available sources gives the data controller grounds to justify that the actions carried out do not themselves breach the fundamental rights of affected citizens, but there may be other grounds to justify a claim that the ‘legitimate interest’ condition prevails over any potential harm to the data subject.  The Spanish law does not address these other circumstances that may also justify the application of the legitimate interest principle.

Accordingly, the flexibility offered by the EU Directive to ‘self assess’ the balance between opposing interests is not addressed in the Spanish DPA.


What are the consequences of this?

The Spanish Supreme Court requested an additional question in the preliminary ruling to assess if the conditions for Article 7(j) to have direct effect are indeed met. The ECJ states that Article 7(f) of Directive 95/46 is a provision that is ‘sufficiently precise to be relied on by an individual and applied by the national courts’.

The Spanish legislator has never been in favour of allowing data controllers to adopt a discretionary, self-assessment approach to ensuring compliance with their data protection obligations.

A clear example of this approach is the regulation on security measures for the processing of personal data which establishes specific security measures which must be applied in every situation, regardless of the specific circumstances of the processing of the personal data. This is contrary to the approach seen in many other EU Member States (where it is generally left to the controller to take the measures which it thinks are necessary to ensure the safe processing and transfer of data).

The Spanish approach in implementing the EU Directive’s Legitimate Interest principle gives a higher standard of certainty by limiting its applicability to a single condition. However, this has dramatically limited the circumstances in which European regulators consider the processing of personal data without the prior consent of the data subject to be valid.

It is noticeable that the ECJ ruling has been given at the same time as we are considering the early drafts of the regulation that will directly replace the EU Directive. A rule which has been in force for the last 15 years in Spain will only then, on implementation of the new regulation, be correctly interpreted.

The Spanish Data Protection Authority (‘AEPD’) has drafted an official opinion on this matter, stating that the effects of the change in the regulatory framework will not be overly significant, since the AEPD was already considering the legitimate interest condition against the rights and freedoms of the data subject in the resolutions they are currently issuing.

Samuel Martin Lorca is an IT Law lawyer (Abogado) specialising in data protection and e-commerce issues at Field Fisher Waterhouse

Brian Davidson is Privacy & Information Practice Coordinator in FFW’s Privacy & Information Law Group.