Internet traffic data and debt collection: privacy implications

Mr Probst was a subsriber to the internet service provider (ISP) Verizon. He failed to pay his bill. A company called ‘nexnet’, the assignee of Verizon’s debt, sought to collect the sums due. In doing so, it obtained and used his internet traffic data in accordance with its ‘data protection and confidentiality agreement’ with Verizon. Disinclined to pay up, Mr Probst argued that nexnet had processed his personal data unlawfully and that the relevant terms of its agreement with Verizon purporting to sanction that processing were void. The first-instance German court agreed with him, but the appellate court did not.

It referred a question to the CJEU concerning Directive 2002/58 (the privacy and electronic communications Directive), which seeks to “particularise and complement” the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC.

Article 5(1) of the 2002 Directive provides confidentiality in respect of electronic communications and traffic data. Article 6(1) says that traffic data must be “erased or made anonymous when it is no longer needed for the purpose of the transmission of a communication”, unless one of the exceptions in that Article applies. The relevant provisions here were Articles 6(2) and (5). The first allows traffic data to be processed for subscriber billing purposes – but only within a specified time period. The second allows for processing of such data by an ISP’s authorised agent only for specified activities and only insofar as is necessary for those activities. The provisions are worded as follows:

(2) Traffic data necessary for the purposes of subscriber billing and interconnection payments may be processed. Such processing is permissible only up to the end of the period during which the bill may lawfully be challenged or payment pursued.

(5) Processing of traffic data, in accordance with paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and 4, must be restricted to persons acting under the authority of providers of the public communications networks and publicly available electronic communications services handling billing or traffic management, customer enquiries, fraud detection, marketing electronic communications services or providing a value added service, and must be restricted to what is necessary for the purposes of such activities.

In Probst v mr.nexnet GmbH (Case C‑119/12), the Third Chamber of the CJEU essentially had to decide whether, and in what circumstances, Articles 6(2) and (5) allow an ISP to pass traffic data to the assignee of its claims for payment such that the latter may process those data. Its starting point was that Articles 6(2) and (5) were exceptions to the general principle of confidentiality with respect to one’s internet traffic data. They therefore needed to be construed strictly.

As regards Article 6(2), Mr Probst had argued that nexnet was not in the business of ‘billing’, but in the business of debt collection. The referring court’s view was that, for data protection purposes, those activities were sufficiently closely connected to be treated indentically. The Third Chamber agreed. It found that, by authorising traffic data processing ‘up to the end of the period during which the bill may lawfully be challenged or payment pursued’, Article 6(2) relates not only to data processing at the time of billing but also to the processing necessary for securing payment thereof.

As to Article 6(5), the Court held “that a persons acts under the authority of another where the former acts on instructions and under the control of the latter”.

The next question was essentially: what does a data protection-compliant contract between an ISP and a third party (an agent, assignee or someone to whom an activity is outsourced) look like? Must the ISP actually be able to determine the use of the data by the third party, including on a case-by-case basis, throughout the duration of the data processing? Or is it sufficient that its contract with the third party contains general rules about the privacy of telecommunications and data protection and provides for data to be erased or returned on request?

The Court emphasised that outsourcing or assignment may not result in lower levels of protection for individuals’ personal data (paragraph 26). The contract must be sufficiently specific. It must, for example, provide for the immediate and irreversible erasure or return of data as soon as knowledge thereof is no longer necessary for the recovery of the claims concerned. The controller (here, the ISP) must be in a position to check and ensure compliance with the privacy and data protection measures agreed under the contract, and the contract must provide for the ISP to be able to request the return or erasure of the data.

The issue in the Probst case (how to balance privacy and legal rights to monies owed) has obvious parallels with measures to combat copyright infringement (how to balance privacy and legal rights to intellectual property). I have blogged on copyright and privacy issues here and here.

The Probst judgment is an important confirmation of general principles about privacy with respect to one’s internet data. The implications for all sorts of contracts involving such data are clear – cloud computing arrangements, for example (on which, see Panopticon’s post here).

It is increasingly important that those contracts provide for specific and enforceable safeguards against unlawful processing of personal data. The Data Protection Directive will change before too long, but these principles will not.

Robin Hopkins