Bird flu gives European Commission a late headache – The ECJ emphasises the discipline of the precautionary principle in Animal Trading Company

The General Court (the court in first instance) of the European Court of Justice has held against the Commission in Case T-333/10 Animal Trading Company. The English version of the judgment was not yet available at the time of writing.

The applicants seek compensation for the harm which they have suffered as a result of, first, the European Commission ban on the importation of birds caught in the wild, which entered into effect in October 2005 in the light of the avian flu phenomenon, second, the extensions of that ban, and, third, the restrictions which have been in force since 1 July 2007 on the importation of birds and which, de facto, continue the prohibition of the importation of birds caught in the wild.

Applicants’ arguments centered on firstly the executive power of the Commission  – with the General Court holding however that the Commission’s action was not ultra vires. The Court subsequently re-iterated its case-law that in looking after human and animal life and health, the European Institutions enjoy a large discretion in light of the precautionary principle. However it also held that in pursuing this wide remit, the Commission diligently has to take account of all available information, and has to follow due process in acquiring such information.

The Court held that the general import ban (and subsequent extensions) had cast the net too wide, given that no assessment was made of the risks presented by imports of birds other than in regions where avian flu had been present. The Commission had not diligently chased relevant information.

The Case is perhaps a relief from the findings in Gowan, however the judgment may be appealed to the ECJ on a point of law – which may not be that obvious for the European Commission to find.

Geert.

Legal advice and legitimate expectations – The ECJ in Schenker

In Schenker, Case C-681/11, defendants in the main proceedings were members of the Spediteur-Sammelladungs-Konferenz (Freight Forwarding Agents Consolidated Consignment Conference; ‘the SSK’). The SSK was an interest group comprising some of the ordinary members of the Zentralverband der Spediteure (Central Association of Freight Forwarding Agents; ‘the Zentralverband’). The Zentralverband, which was set up as an association, represents the collective interests of freight forwarding agents and of logistics service providers with a forwarding licence.

The SSK pursued the objective of ‘enabling more favourable road/rail consolidated consignment rates to be granted to shippers and to end consumers (compared with the rail tariffs for general cargo) and – through the creation of equal conditions of competition – of promoting fair competition among its members, an objective … to be pursued whilst having particular regard to ensuring compliance with Austrian, [European Union and European Economic Area (EEA)] law on cartels’.

The Austrian competition court confirmed that the arrangement was a ‘minor cartel’, meaning that it could go ahead without the approval of the competition authority. Hence, it would seem – but I am not au fait with the detail of Austrian competition law – putting the ball back in the camp of the cartel: for a finding of mini-cartel does not to me seem to imply a finding of non-breach of competition law.

Advice of counsel had confirmed the existence of a ‘mini cartel’ both at the time of the 1996 agreement and later, in 2006, at the entry into force of a new competition law. In neither instance had counsel advised on the legality or not under EU competition law. The European Commission raided the offices of members of the cartel in 2007, following which the Austrian competition authority pursued the case for breach of EU (as opposed to national) competition law. The courts in first instance held that the finding of a mini-cartel implied the absence of impact on cross-border trade, which is  prerequisite for EU competition law to apply. Upon appeal, questions were referred to the ECJ.

The Court held that an undertaking which has infringed that provision may not escape imposition of a fine where the infringement has resulted from that undertaking erring as to the lawfulness of its conduct on account of the terms of legal advice given by a lawyer or of the terms of a decision of a national competition authority.

In the case of the competition authority, since it does not under EU law have the power to adopt a decision concluding that there is no infringement of EU law, it cannot cause companies to entertain a legitimate expectation that their conduct does not infringe competition rules. Moreover, in the present instance the national authority examined the companies’ conduct on the basis of national competition law only.

In the case of the legal advice, a person may not plead breach of the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations unless he has been given precise assurances by the competent authority (the ECJ referred to its finding in  AJD Tuna, and Agrargenossenschaft Neuzelle). It follows that legal advice given by a lawyer cannot, in any event, form the basis of a legitimate expectation on the part of an undertaking that its conduct does not infringe EU competition law or will not lead to a fine.

The judgment to me it would seem to have important implications: for legal advice is often sought by companies not just to enable them to adapt their behaviour, but also to buy themself an insurance policy.

Geert.

How ‘trade related’ is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights? The ECJ in Daiichi Sankyo v Demo

In  Daiichi Sankyo v Demo (most likely ‘Demo’ in shorthand), the Court of Justice held last Thursday, 18 July. One of the main issues was the extent of Article 207 TFEU on the EU’s common commercial policy, vis-a-vis the TRIPS Agreement. Article 207 grants the EU exclusive competence (and the European Commission a very strong hand) in ‘common commercial policy’.

By its first question, the referring Greek court asked essentially whether Article 27 of the TRIPs Agreement falls within a field for which the Member States have primary competence and, if so, whether the national courts may accord that provision direct effect subject to the conditions laid down by national law. The TRIPs Agreement was concluded by the Community and its Member States by virtue of shared competence. At the time, for the EU to be able to exercise exclusive jurisdiction pre Lisbon, under the in foro interno, in foro externo principle, it would have had to have exercised its powers in the field of patents, or, more precisely, of patentability: roll-out of its internal powers on patentability, would have als led to exclusive power externally. The European Commission however suggested that the mixed agreement discussion (and the exercise, or not, of its internal powers), was no longer relevant, given that the Lisbon Treaty has now given it exclusive competence in the entire common commercial policy, including for intellectual property rights. Under the old Article 113 EC Treaty (later updated to Article 133 – many of us still speak of the ‘Article 113 Committee, which surely dates us!), intellectual property rights did not feature in the common commercial policy.

The ECJ conceded that of the rules adopted by the European Union in the field of intellectual property, only those with a specific link to international trade are capable of falling within the concept of ‘commercial aspects of intellectual property’ in Article 207(1) TFEU and hence the field of the common commercial policy. However it emphatically [and contrary to the view of Cruz Villalon AG] held that such is indeed the case for the TRIPS Agreement: ‘Although those rules do not relate to the details, as regards customs or otherwise, of operations of international trade as such, they have a specific link with international trade. The TRIPs Agreement is an integral part of the WTO system and is one of the principal multilateral agreements on which that system is based.’ (para 53).

Member States cannot therefore grant direct effect to the provisions of TRIPS, in accordance with national law. It is up to the ECJ to hold on such direct effect – or not, and in the absence of such direct effect, to interpret the provisions of EU law in line with the provisions of the TRIPS Agreement.

The judgment also reviews a number of substantial aspects of intellectual property law which I feel less entitled to comment on, I fear.

Geert.

There’s only that much delay the ECJ will tolerate – Rotterdam court has to start from scratch in EBS, no clarification on waste shipments

The Court’s order in EBS, Case C-240/12 (available in French and Dutch only), has only now come to my attention (thanks to Raluca Rada) – and for the wrong reasons. This is a preliminary review by the Court at Rotterdam, concerning the application of the waste shipments Regulation.

The case at hand refers to a transport of unsorted used clothes from France to the United Arab Emirates via the Port of Rotterdam, seized by the Dutch authorities due to alleged failure to comply with the notification requirements under the waste shipment Regulation for waste transit. The defendant in the criminal proceedings essentially argued that the Dutch authorities interpret the concept of ‘transit’ in too wide a manner. Since these are criminal proceedings, there is additional tension on the notion of transit in old v new waste shipments Regulation – under criminal law, the provision with the most advantageous consequences for the defendant needs to be applied, even if it was not applicable at the time of the alleged infringement (retroactive application of the milder criminal law; thank you to Gaelle Marlier for confirming that).

The ECJ forewarned the national court that not enough information on the facts had been given for it to review. Time was given for the national court to provide additional data – the oral hearing was postponed to accommodate the national court’s delay in answering. Subsequently, the national court wanted to hear the parties on the additional facts to be given to the court: such hearing could not be scheduled for some time in view of the workload of the national court. The ECJ was then requested to try and answer the question anyway, on the basis of the facts that had been given in the request, supplemented with the few extra nuggets that had been provided informally. Not surprisingly therefore, the Court in the end declined full stop.

I am not sure what this means for the procedure: presumably, the question may be asked again, this time with the right amount of data? To my knowledge these kinds of orders do not occur all that frequently, pity it should do in this case, for I was rather looking forward to hearing the outcome.

Geert.

Questions referred

Where waste is shipped by vessel from an EU Member State (in this case France) to a State in which the OECD-Decision does not apply (in this case the United Arab Emirates), is there ‘transit’ within the meaning of the former 2 and the new  Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) if under way the vessel puts in at a port of another EU Member State (in this case the Port of Rotterdam)?

Does it make any difference to the answer to question 1 if:

there is storage and/or transhipment of that waste at that port and/or

that waste is taken ashore and/or

that waste is declared for import at customs?

‘Where law and new technology meet’ – JÄÄSKINEN AG turns to business model in Google Spain to establish scope of application of the data protection Directive. No right to be forgotten under the Directive or Charter.

As announced on the blog earlier, JÄÄSKINEN AG has opined this morning in Case C-131/12 Google Spain. The Opinion covers a lot of issues in relatively condensed space – one of these Opinions where you should not trust the summary of a blogger, for invariably the blog posting does not do justice to all issues addressed. Below my highlights on the basis of diagonal reading: for I find this too important an Opinion not to flag it immediately.

As summarised by the AG, according to Article 4(1) of the Directive, the primary factor that gives rise to the territorial applicability of the national data protection legislation is the processing of personal data carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of the Member State. Further, when a controller is not established on EU territory but uses means or equipment situated on the territory of the Member State for processing of personal data, the legislation of that Member State applies unless such equipment or means is used only for purposes of transit through the territory of the EU. The territorial scope of application of the Directive and the national implementing legislation is triggered therefore either by the location of the establishment of the controller, or the location of the means or equipment being used when the controller is established outside the EEA. Nationality or place of habitual residence of data subjects is not decisive, nor is the physical location of the personal data – at least not in the current versions of the Directive. The AG points out that in future legislation relevant targeting of individuals could be taken into account in relation to controllers not established in the EU. Such an approach, attaching the territorial applicability of EU legislation to the targeted public, is consistent with the Court’s case-law on the applicability of the e-commerce Directive 2000/31, the Brussels I (‘jurisdiction’) Regulation and Directive 2001/29, the on copyright and related rights in the information society to cross-border situations. Again, though, it is not a criterion in the current version of the data protection Directive, with respect to providers established outside of the EU.

The AG turns to the business model of a company to assist him in establishing applicability of the Directive for the case at issue, where Google (domiciled in California) does have establishments in the EU (the establishment of the controller therefore being the trigger), as well as at least two known data centres:

‘Google Inc. is a Californian firm with subsidiaries in various EU Member States. Its European operations are to a certain extent coordinated by its Irish subsidiary. It currently has data centres at least in Belgium and Finland. Information on the exact geographical location of the functions relating to its search engine is not made public. Google claims that no processing of personal data relating to its search engine takes place in Spain. Google Spain acts as commercial representative of Google for its advertising functions. In this capacity is has taken responsibility for the processing of personal data relating to its Spanish advertising customers. Google denies that its search engine performs any operations on the host servers of the source web pages, or that it collects information by means of cookies of non registered users of its search engine.’ (at 62).

‘In my opinion the Court should approach the question of territorial applicability from the perspective of the business model of internet search engine service providers. This, as I have mentioned, normally relies on keyword advertising which is the source of income and, as such, the economic raison d’être for the provision of a free information location tool in the form of a search engine. The entity in charge of keyword advertising (called ‘referencing service provider’ in the Court’s case-law) is linked to the internet search engine. This entity needs presence on national advertising markets. For this reason Google has established subsidiaries in many Member States which clearly constitute establishments within the meaning of Article 4(1)(a) of the Directive. It also provides national web domains such as google.es or google.fi. The activity of the search engine takes this national diversification into account in various ways relating to the display of the search results because the normal financing model of keyword advertising follows the pay-per-click principle.’ (…) ‘In conclusion, processing of personal data takes place within the context of a controller’s establishment if that establishment acts as the bridge for the referencing service to the advertising market of that Member State, even if the technical data processing operations are situated in other Member States or third countries.’ (…)

‘For this reason, I propose that the Court should answer the first group of preliminary questions in the sense that processing of personal data is carried out in the context of the activities of an ‘establishment’ of the controller within the meaning of Article 4(1)(a) of the Directive when the undertaking providing the search engine sets up in a Member State for the purpose of promoting and selling advertising space on the search engine, an office or subsidiary which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that State.’  [footnotes omitted]

The AG uses the terms ‘targeted at’ [cf in this respect ‘intended target of information’ in Football Dataco] and ‘oriented at’ – not, as had become custom, ‘directed at’: presumably to emphasise the contrast with the other Directives mentioned above.

The AG then turns his attention inter alia to the alleged ‘right to be forgotten’: not one, he suggests, which exists under the current Directive, not even when read in conjunction with the Charter on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (the EU’s version of the Human Rights Act). That surely is an important observation.

Much to chew on – not quite all digested above, however I do hope these first impressions may act as an appetizer for discussion elsewhere.

Geert.

Getting the hint, punk? European data protection authorities step up fight against Google

Postscript 30 September 2013: see here for the CNIL press release stating that Google has failed to comply and shall be served an official enforcement notice.

 

I reported earlier on the referral to the ECJ of questions surrounding jurisdiction under the data protection Directive: the AG’s Opinion in that case, C-131/17 is due tomorrow (25 June). Last week, the French data protection authority (‘CNIL’)  ordered Google to comply with the French Data Protection Act, within three months. That in itself of course is testimony to the French determination in their own national procedure. However the agency’s action is unusual in that it announces co-ordinated action between a wide variety of European data protection agencies. CNIL notes

The Data Protection Authorities from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom carry on their investigations under their respective national procedures and as part of an international administrative cooperation.

Therefore,

  • The Spanish DPA has issued to Google his decision today to open a sanction procedure for the infringement of key principles of the Spanish Data Protection Law.
  • The UK Information Commissioner’s Office is considering whether Google’s updated privacy policy is compliant with the UK Data Protection Act 1998. ICO will shortly be writing to Google to confirm their preliminary findings.
  • The Data Protection Commissioner of Hamburg has opened a formal procedure against the company. It starts with a formal hearing as required by public administrative law, which may lead to the release of an administrative order requiring Google to implement measures in order to comply with German national data protection legislation.
  • As part of the investigation, the Dutch DPA will first issue a confidential report of preliminary findings, and ask Google to provide its view on the report. The Dutch DPA will use this view in its definite report of findings, after which it may decide to impose a sanction.
  • The Italian Data Protection Authority is awaiting additional clarification from Google Inc. after opening a formal inquiry proceeding at the end of May and will shortly assess the relevant findings to establish possible enforcement measures, including possible sanctions, under the Italian data protection law.’

Other than perhaps in competition law, such co-ordinated action among national authorities is rare. That it should be in data protection, confirms the relevance which Europeans and their legislators attach to the protection of personal data.

Geert.

Piercing the corporate veil in competition cases – The ECJ in Eni

Update 13 June 2019 for an interesting paper by Anil Yilmaz Vastardis and Rachel Chambers, comparing investment law and the relevant issues for corporate veil and human rights abuses, see here.

Update 21 September 2016. For an application in the environment field, see [2016] EWCA Crim 1043 R v Powell and Westwood and analysis by Robert Biddlecombe, who brought the case to my attention.

Update 20 June 2016 the strict approach was confirmed in C-155/14P Evonik.

There is no general EU rule on the piercing of the corporate veil. Neither company law nor tort law is sufficiently (or in the case of tort law even embryonically) harmonised to be able to speak of much EU influence here. However in EU competition law, the principle is more or less established and may, one suspects, inspire in other areas, too. In Eni, the ECJ confirmed on 8 May the strong presumption of attribution in the case of shareholder control.

It is established case-law under EU competition law that the conduct of a subsidiary may be imputed, for the purposes of the application of Article 101 TFEU, to the parent company particularly where, although having separate legal personality, that subsidiary does not autonomously determine its conduct on the market but mostly applies the instructions given to it by the parent company, having regard in particular to the economic, organisational and legal links which unite those two legal entities. In such a situation, since the parent company and its subsidiary form part of a single economic unit and thus form a single undertaking for the purpose of Article 101 TFEU, the Court has repeatedly held that the Commission may address a decision imposing fines to the parent company without being required to establish its individual involvement in the infringement.

In the particular case in which a parent company holds all or almost all of the capital in a subsidiary which has committed an infringement of the European Union competition rules, there is a rebuttable presumption that that parent company exercises an actual decisive influence over its subsidiary. In such a situation, it is sufficient for the Commission to prove that all or almost all of the capital in the subsidiary is held by the parent company in order to take the view that that presumption is fulfilled.

In addition, in the specific case where a holding company holds 100% of the capital of an interposed company which, in turn, holds the entire capital of a subsidiary of its group which has committed an infringement of European Union competition law, there is also a rebuttable presumption that that holding company exercises a decisive influence over the conduct of the interposed company and also indirectly, via that company, over the conduct of that subsidiary.

In the present case, for the entire duration of the infringement in question, Eni held, directly or indirectly, at least 99.97% of the capital in the companies which were directly active within its group in the sectors in which there had been a violation of competition law. The ECJ held that in particular the absence of management overlap between Eni and the daughter companies, was not enough to rebut the presumption of the companies being a single economic unit. In competition law, therefore, the corporate veil may be quite easily pierced in a holding context, which undoubtedly is not the approach which many Member States take outside of the competition law area.

The waters therefore on the piercing of the corporate veil other than in the area of competition law, remain quite deep. This has an impact on the conflicts area, in particular in the application of the Rome II Regulation and the debate on corporate social responsibility, on which I have reported before on this blog.

Geert.

postscript: point made in e.g. the UKSC on 12 June 2013, in Petrodel v Prest (a matrimonial assets case which was decided on the basis of trust), where Lord Neuberger stated obiter  “if piercing the corporate veil has any role to play, it is in connection with evasion”.

Lord Sumption’s take was “there is a limited principle of English law which applies when a person is under an existing legal obligation…which he deliberately evades or whose enforcement he deliberately frustrates by interposing a company under his control. The court may then pierce the corporate veil for the purpose, and only for the purpose, of depriving the company or its controller of the advantage that they would otherwise have obtained by the company’s separate legal personality“. He added ‘The principle is properly described as a limited one, because in almost every case where the test is satisfied, the facts will in practice disclose a legal relationship between the company and its controller which will make it unnecessary to pierce the corporate veil.’

Lord Clarke, agreeing with Lord Mance and others, stated “the situations in which piercing the corporate veil may be available as a fall-back are likely to be very rare”.

 

Don’t just pass the buck – ECJ underlines role of national courts in preliminary review

Under Article 267 TFEU, courts of the Member States can seek the assistance of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg to help them interpret Union law.  When they consider an act of the EU’s Institutions to be illegal, they have no choice but to refer to the ECJ: only the ECJ may conclude to such invalidity. In Case C-368/12 Adiamix, the Court reminds national judges of their duty under such referrals. They must provide the Court with the core factual and legal elements (in national law) relevant for the ECJ to appreciate the context of the referral. They must also furnish the Court with at least their core considerations as to why the EU act at issue might be illegal. In the case at issue, a Commission order to France to recover illegally paid State Aid, led to Adiamix being pursued for repayment in the French courts. Failure of the courts in Nantes to flag the suspicions of illegality, led to inadmissibility of the preliminary review.

Simply passing the buck therefore does not suffice: the national court has to add some core whistles and bells of EU law analysis.

Geert.

Preussen Elektra confirmed? Bot AG in Essent

Bot AG in Essent, Cases C-204/12 through to C-208/12 Essent v VREG (at the time of writing the English version of the Opinion was not yet available, however it will be soon) summarised the questions referred as whether the Flemish support scheme for renewable energy, which grants renewable energy certificates to producers of such energy only if they are located in the Flemish Region, and which obliges electricity distributors to surrender a minimum amount of such certificates without being able to offer such certificates obtained in other EU Member States, is compatible with the free movement of goods and with the EU’s non-discrimination principle. Directive 2001/77 regulates both renewable energy (or ‘green’) certificates – which are used by a Member State to show its meeting its obligations to produce a minimum amount of electricity from renewable sources – and certificates of origin, which allow an electricity distributors to prove that x amount of its electricity distributed, originates from renewable energy.

The Advocate General did not entertain at length the issue of whether renewable certificates in themselves qualify as ‘goods’ under the Treaty. The Flemish system may definitely have an impact on the import of ‘green’ electricity, with the latter undeniably having been held to be a ‘good’ under the protection of the free movement of goods. If the certificates scheme unjustifiably restricts the free movement of goods, it would at any rate be illegal and in need of proper justification.

Unlike in Preussen Elektra, distributors of electricity could still purchase renewable energy abroad – however such electricity is often more expensive (for it does not receive Flemish government support), and even if distributors were to purchase abroad, they would still have to surrender, after purchase, the necessary Flemish certificates.

The AG notes that the Court in Preussen Elektra allowed the German scheme despite it being discriminatory. This might have been an implicit reversal of the case-law that infringements of the free movement of goods may only be based on the court-invented ‘mandatory requirements’ (of which environmental protection is one; as opposed to those societal interests which are included in the explicit list of exceptions of Article 36 TFEU) where they do not discriminate. That it might have been such reversal  leads the AG to suggest, finding support in the integration principle, that the Court in Essent should make that reversal explicit. However an alternative reading of Preussen Elektra suggests that the judgment was simply poor precedent, especially given that the court did not only ignore the discriminatory nature of the German measure, but omitted at the same time to assess its proportionality. The poor judgment in Preussen Elektra may be explained by the series of harmonising measures in the Internal Market for electricity, which were being prepared at the time of the judgment and which have since entered the statute books.

Despite the AG suggesting such a rare explicit reversal of the Court’s case-law on the free movement of goods, he does not suggest that in the case at issue, the infringement is justified. Among his arguments for rejecting the measure (which also features the argument that the Flemish Region violated a promise made at the time the relevant scheme was approved by the European Commission under State aid rules), the one dismissing the ‘local production’ requirement is probably the least forceful. There is in my view merit in the argument that the relevant Union laws require Member States to roll-out their own, national renewable energy capabilities, and that systems such as the Flemish one may be required to support industry to work towards that goal (see the similar arguments at the WTO level).

The AG’s opinion contains a wealth of suggestions for the ECJ. It is likely that the Court will not take too much of that bait.

Geert.

Questions referred
'Is a national rule, such as that embodied in the Flemish Decreet van 17 juli 2000 houdende 
de organisatie van de elektriciteitsmarkt (Decree of 17 July 2000 on the organisation of 
the market in electricity), as implemented by the Besluit (Decision) of the Flemish Government
of 5 March 2004, as amended by the Besluit of the Flemish Government of 25 February 2005
on the promotion of the generation of electricity from renewable energy sources, where an
obligation is imposed on the suppliers of electricity to final customers connected to the
distribution network or the transmission network, to submit a certain number of green 
certificates annually to the Regulatory Authority (Article 23 of the aforementioned Decreet);
an administrative fine is imposed by the Vlaamse Reguleringsinstantie voor de Elektriciteits-
en Gasmarkt (VREG) on the suppliers of electricity to final customers connected to the 
distribution network or the transmission network when the supplier has not submitted a sufficient
number of green certificates to fulfil a quota obligation which has been imposed in respect of
green certificates (Article 37(2) of the aforementioned Decreet);
the Regulatory Authority cannot or will not take into account any guarantees of origin originating
from Norway and the Netherlands, and that being in the absence of implementing measures on the part
of the Flemish Government, which has acknowledged the equality or equivalence of those certificates
(Article 25 of the aforementioned Decreet and Article 15(1) of the Besluit of 5 March 2004), 
without that equality or equivalence being investigated by the Regulatory Authority 
in concrete terms;
in fact, during the whole time that the Decreet of 17 July 2000 was in force, only certificates for
the production of green energy generated in the Flemish Region were taken into account when
ascertaining whether the quota obligation had been fulfilled, whereas for the suppliers of electricity
to final customers connected to the distribution network or transmission network there was no 
possibility whatsoever of demonstrating that the guarantees of origin submitted met the condition of
the existence of equal or equivalent guarantees regarding the granting of such certificates, 
compatible with Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 11 of
the EEA Agreement and/or Article 36 of that Treaty and Article 13 of the EEA Agreement?'
Is a national rule as referred to in subquestion 1 above compatible with Article 5 of the then
Directive 2001/77/EC 2 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 September 2001
on the promotion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources in the internal electricity market?
Is a national rule as referred to in subquestion 1 above compatible with the principle of equal
treatment and the prohibition of discrimination as embodied inter alia in Article 18 of 
the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 3 of the then Directive
2003/54/EC  of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2003 concerning common
rules for the internal market in electricity and repealing Directive 96/92/EC?'

The ‘location’ of data in the EU: Google’s Spanish tussle referred to the ECJ

In  Google v  Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, the Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional) has asked assistance with a number of essential questions under the EU’s flagship Directive on the protection of personal data, Directive 95/46. The case is relevant not just for the particular context of the data protection Directive: it generally addresses the million dollar question of ‘location’ in an internet context.

Mario Costeja González had requested Google to remove from its search results, an advertisement which had appeared in print, relating to the sale of property as a result of a former (and meanwhile resolved) debt. Google refused. Complaints to the Spanish data protection agency led i.a. to the question whether Spain at all has jurisdiction over the subsidiary, or whether California is the only acceptable forum, the Spanish subsidiary not trading in and of its own right, but rather providing collected data to its mother company.

Article 4 of the Directive is the crucial provision. It effectively links applicable law to jurisdiction (putting the horse before the cart, one could say):

Article 4

National law applicable

1. Each Member State shall apply the national provisions it adopts pursuant to this Directive to the processing of personal data where:

(a) the processing is carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of the Member State; when the same controller is established on the territory of several Member States, he must take the necessary measures to ensure that each of these establishments complies with the obligations laid down by the national law applicable;

(b) the controller is not established on the Member State’s territory, but in a place where its national law applies by virtue of international public law;

(c) the controller is not established on Community territory and, for purposes of processing personal data makes use of equipment, automated or otherwise, situated on the territory of the said Member State, unless such equipment is used only for purposes of transit through the territory of the Community.

2. In the circumstances referred to in paragraph 1 (c), the controller must designate a representative established in the territory of that Member State, without prejudice to legal actions which could be initiated against the controller himself.

Whence ‘carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of the Member State

and

makes use of equipment (…) , situated on the territory of the said Member State‘ 

are the crucial connecting factors. It led the High Court to the following questions (I have only selected those with a specific conflicts relevance):

*****
With regard to the territorial application of Directive 95/46/EC and, consequently, of the Spanish data-protection legislation:
1.1. must it be considered that an ‘establishment’, within the meaning of Article 4(1)(a) of Directive 95/46/EC, exists when any one or more of the following circumstances arise:
– when the undertaking providing the search engine sets up in a Member State an office or subsidiary for the purpose of promoting and selling advertising space on the search engine, which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that State,
or
– when the parent company designates a subsidiary located in that Member State as its representative and controller for two specific filing systems which relate to the data of customers who have contracted for advertising with that undertaking,
or
– when the office or subsidiary established in a Member State forwards to the parent company, located outside the European Union, requests and requirements addressed to it both by data subjects and by the authorities with responsibility for ensuring observation of the right to data protection, even where such collaboration is engaged in voluntarily?
1.2. Must Article 4(1)(c) of Directive 95/46/EC be interpreted as meaning that there is ‘use of equipment … situated on the territory of that Member State’
when a search engine uses crawlers or robots to locate and index information contained in web pages located on servers in that Member State
or
when it uses a domain name pertaining to a Member State and arranges for searches and the results thereof to be based on the language of that Member State?
1.3. Is it possible to regard as a use of equipment, in the terms of Article 4(1)(c) of Directive 95/46/EC, the temporary storage of the information indexed by internet search engines? If the answer to that question is affirmative, can it be considered that that connecting factor is present when the undertaking refuses to disclose the place where it stores those indexes, invoking reasons of competition?
1.4. Regardless of the answers to the foregoing questions and particularly in the event that the Court of Justice of the European Union considers that the connecting factors referred to in Article 4 of the Directive are not present:
must Directive 95/46/EC on data protection be applied, in the light of Article 8 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, in the Member State where the centre of gravity of the conflict is located and more effective protection of the rights of European Union citizens is possible?
*****
The references to the Charter and to ‘centre of gravity’ (in the questions) and to public international law (in the Directive) make this review particularly tantalising. Let’s see which questions the Court will be happy to pick off and chew over.
Geert.
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