Data protection and compensation: the “irreversible march” towards revolutionary change

At 11KBW’s Information Law conference this past Tuesday, I talked a bit about the progress of the draft EU Data Protection Regulation. I omitted to mention last week’s development (my reason: I was on holiday in Venice, where data protection seemed less pressing). In a plenary session on 12 March, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of the Commission’s current draft of the Regulation. This is all explain in this Memo from the European Commission. Here are some key points.

One is the apparently “irreversible” progress towards getting the Regulation onto the EU statute books. “The position of the Parliament is now set in stone and will not change even if the composition of the Parliament changes following the European elections in May. As a reminder, the remaining stage is for the European Council to agree to the proposal. Its ministers are meeting again in early June. So far, they have been broadly supportive.

Another point is about business size and data protection risk: SMEs will not need to notify (so where will the ICO get its funding?), they won’t need to have data protection officers or carry out privacy impact assessments as a default rule. “We want to make sure that obligations are not imposed except where they are necessary to protect personal data: the baker on the corner will not be subject to the same rules as a (multinational) data processing specialist.”

A third point has great consequences for international transfers: “Non-European companies, when offering services to European consumers, will have to apply the same rules and adhere to the same levels of protection of personal data. The reasoning is simple: if companies outside Europe want to take advantage of the European market with more than 500 million potential customers, then they have to play by the European rules”.

Fourth, the “right to be forgotten” is still very much on the agenda. “If an individual no longer wants his or her personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system” (subject to freedom of expression). This “citizen in the driving seat” principle, like the consistency aim (the same rules applied the same away across the whole EU) and the “one-stop shop” regulatory model has been part of the reform package from the outset.

A final point is that the Parliament wants regulators to be able to impose big fines: “It has proposed strengthening the Commission’s proposal by making sure that fines can go up to 5% of the annual worldwide turnover of a company (up from 2% in the Commission’s proposal)”. Monetary penalties will not be mandatory, but they will potentially be huge.

On this last point about money: as under the current law, a regulatory fine is one thing and the individual’s right to be compensated another. At out seminar on Tuesday, we discussed whether there would soon be a sweeping away (see for example the Vidal-Hall v Google litigation) of the long-established Johnson v MDU principle that in order to be compensated for distress under section 13 of the DPA, you need first to prove that you suffered financial loss. That may well be so for the DPA, in which case the short- and medium-term consequences for data protection litigation in the UK will be huge.

But it is important to be clear about the longer term: this is going to happen anyway, regardless of any case-law development in UK jurisprudence. Article 77 of the current draft of the Regulation begins like this “Any person who has suffered damage, including non-pecuniary damage, as a result of an unlawful processing operation or of an action incompatible with this Regulation shall have the right to claim compensation from the controller or the processor for the damage suffered”.

If we are indeed irreversibly on track towards a new Regulation, then data protection litigation – notably, though not only about compensating data subjects – is guaranteed to be revolutionised.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin