The determination of the territorial scope of the current EU Directive n° 95/46 is still under dispute both before national Courts and the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This issue may soon become moot with the adoption of future data protection regulation, which may modify and expand the territorial scope of EU data privacy law, especially following the results of the recent vote of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. The following is meant to help determine the current state of affairs regarding the issue of the territorial (and extraterritorial) scope of the future EU law following this vote of the European Parliament. 

As the internet has allowed companies to easily provide services from a distance, the issue as to what laws are applicable to personal data has become more complex. This was not fully anticipated when the current EU Directive on personal data protection was adopted in 1995. Modifications to the rules regarding territorial scope set by Article 4 of the current EU Directive have been a highly debated issue in the EU.

An ongoing case before the ECJ highlights this complexity, and the legal uncertainty, surrounding the territorial scope of the current EU Directive. In this case, a Spanish citizen lodged a complaint against Google Spain and Google Inc. before the Spanish Data Protection Agency (“AEPD”) because Google refused to take down data that appeared when his name was entered in the search engine. As a defense, Google argued that Spanish law was not applicable because the processing of personal data relating to its search engine does not take place in Spain, as Google Spain acts merely as a commercial representative: the technical data processing takes place in California. According to Article 4.1 (a) of the EU Directive, national law is applicable if “the processing is carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of the Member State.” The ECJ will therefore have to determine whether Google Spain, “in the context of its activities,” may be considered as processing data, even though, as a commercial subsidiary, it does not technically process personal data.

The Advocate General has given a positive answer to that question in a non-binding Opinion delivered last summer. In the Opinion, he argues that since the business model of search engines relies on targeted advertising, the local establishment in charge of marketing such targeted advertising to the inhabitants of a particular country must be considered as processing personal data “in the context of its activities,” even though the technical operations are not performed there. The ECJ is expected to render its decision at the end of this year.

In the near future, the applicable law in such a situation may more easily be determined based on the draft Regulation proposed by the European Parliament.

  • First, the European Parliament has proposed Article 3.1 of the EU Directive be amended to clarify that “this Regulation applies to the processing of personal data in the context of the activities of an establishment of a controller or a processor in the Union whether the processing takes places in the Union or not.” (emphasis added). If the draft Regulation is adopted as such, EU law would therefore unequivocally apply to the activities of the subsidiaries established in the EU of foreign companies, regardless of the actual place of data processing.
  • Second, the European Parliament proposes to amend Article 3.2 of the EU Directive, which concerns the extraterritorial application of EU law (i.e., the situation where the data controller does not have any presence in the EU). The draft Regulation provides that EU law would nonetheless apply if the processing of data is related to “offering of goods or services” to data subjects in the European Union. In accordance with the Article 29 Working Party, which stated in its Opinion 01/2012 that the offering of goods or services should include free services, the European Parliament has proposed amending Article 3.2 to provide that the EU law would apply to any processing activity related to the offering of goods or services to data subjects in the EU, “irrespective  of whether a payment of the data subject is required.”

The draft amended regulation will now be negotiated with the European Council (the governments of the EU Member States). The European Parliament is pushing for a vote of the regulation in the spring 2014.  However, such a timetable is far from assured, given the general “slow track” of the proposed legislation coupled with recent pronouncements by the leaders of several EU countries suggesting a timetable closer to 2015.