Not the way the datr cookie crumbles. Belgian courts on soggy jurisdictional grounds in Facebook privacy ruling.

Update 11 July 2016 the Court of Appeal has sided with FB on 29 June. No surprises there!

Update 9 February 2016 the French privacy commission has now mirrored the Belgian action

Quite a lot of attention has been going to a Belgian court ordering Facebook to stop collecting data from non-users through the use of so-called datr cookies.  Applicant is Willem Debeuckelaere, the chairman of the Belgian privacy commission, in his capacity as chairman (not, therefore, as a private individual). Our interest here is of course in the court’s finding that it has jurisdiction to hear the case, and that it can apply Belgian law. The judgment is drafted in Dutch – an English (succinct) summary is available here.

Defendants are three parties: Facebook Inc, domiciled in California; Facebook Belgium BVBA, domiciled in Brussels; and Facebook Ireland Ltd., domiciled in Dublin. Facebook Belgium essentially is FB’s public affairs office in the EU. FB Ireland delivers FB services to the EU market.

Directive 95/46 and the Brussels I Recast Regulation operate in a parallel universe. The former dictates jurisdiction and applicable law at the level of the relationship between data protection authorities (DPAs), and data processors (the FBs, Googles etc. of this world). The latter concerns the relation between private individuals and both authorities and processors alike. That parallelism explains, for instance, why Mr Schrems is pursuing the Irish DPA in the Irish Courts, and additionally, FB in the Austrian courts.

Current litigation against FB lies squarely in the context of Directive 95/46. This need not have been the case: Mr Debeuckelaere, aforementioned, could have sued in his personal capacity. If he is not a FB customer, at the least vis-a-vis FB Ireland, this could have easily established jurisdiction on the basis of Article 7(2)’s jurisdiction for tort (here: invasion of privacy): with Belgium as the locus damni. Jurisdiction against FB Inc can not so be established in the basis of Article 7(2) (it does not apply to defendants based outside the EU). If the chairman qq natural person is a FB customer, jurisdiction for the Belgian courts may be based on the consumer contracts provisions of Regulation 1215/2012 – however that would have defeated the purpose of addressing FB’s policy vis-a-vis non-users, which I understand is what datr cookies are about.

Instead, the decision was taken (whether informed or not) to sue purely on the basis of the data protection Directive. This of course requires application of the jurisdictional trigger clarified in Google Spain. German precedent prior to the Google Spain judgment, did not look promising (Schleswig-Holstein v Facebook).

At the least, the Belgian court’s application of the Google Spain test, is debatable: as I note in the previous post,

Article 4(1)(a) of Directive 95/46 does not require the processing of personal data in question to be carried out ‘by’ the establishment concerned itself, but only that it be carried out ‘in the context of the activities’ of the establishment (at 52): that is the case if the latter is intended to promote and sell, in that Member State, advertising space offered by the search engine which serves to make the service offered by that engine profitable (at 55). The very display of personal data on a search results page constitutes processing of such data. Since that display of results is accompanied, on the same page, by the display of advertising linked to the search terms, it is clear that the processing of personal data in question is carried out in the context of the commercial and advertising activity of the controller’s establishment on the territory of a Member State, in this instance Spanish territory (at 57).

Google Spain’s task was providing support to the Google group’s advertising activity which is separate from its search engine service. Per the formula recalled above, this sufficed to trigger jurisdiction for the Spanish DPA. Google Spain is tasked to promote and sell, in that Member State, advertising space offered by the search engine which serves to make the service offered by that engine profitable. The Belgian court accepts jurisdiction on the basis of Facebook Belgium’s activities being ‘inseparably linked’ (at p.15) to Facebook’s activities. With respect, I do not think this was the intention of the CJEU in Google Spain. At the very least, the court’s finding undermines the one stop principle of the data protection Directive, for Belgium’s position viz the EU Institutions means that almost all data processors have some form of public interest representation in Belgium, often indeed taking the form of a BVBA or a VZW (the latter meaning a not for profit association).

The court further justifies (p.16) its jurisdiction on the basis of the measures being provisionary. Provisionary measures fall outside the jurisdictional matrix of the Brussels I (Recast), provided they are indeed provisionary, and provided there is a link between the territory concerned and the provisional measures imposed. How exactly such jurisdiction can be upheld vis-a-vis Facebook Ireland and Facebook Inc, is not clarified by the court.

The court does limit the provisionary measures territorially: FB is only ordered to stop using datr cookies tracking data of non-FB users ‘vis-a-vis internetusers on Belgian territory’, lest these be informed of same.

I mentioned above that the data protection Directive and the Brussels I recast can be quite clearly distinguished at the level of jurisdiction. However findings of courts or public authorities on the basis of either of them, do still face the hurdle of enforcement. That is no different in this case. Recognition and enforcement of the judgment vis-a-vis FB Inc will have to follow a rather complex route, and it is not inconceivable that the US (in particular, the State of California) will refuse recognition on the basis of perceived extraterritorial jurisdictional claims (see here for a pondering of the issues). Even vis-a-vis Facebook Ireland, however, one can imagine enforcement difficulties. Even if these provisionary measures are covered by the Brussels I Recast (which may not be the case given the public character of plaintiff), such measures issued by courts which lack jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter, are not covered by the enforcement Title of the Regulation.

All in all, plenty to be discussed in appeal.

Geert.

 

 

 

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