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Over the years, the number of on-site inspections by the French DPA (CNIL) has been on a constant rise. Based on the CNIL's latest statistics (see CNIL's 2013 Annual Activity Report), 458 on-site inspections were carried out in 2012, which represents a 19 percent increase compared with 2011. The number of complaints has also risen to 6,000 in 2012, most of which were in relation to telecom/Internet services, at 31 percent. In 2012, the CNIL served 43 formal notices asking data controllers to comply. In total, the CNIL pronounced 13 sanctions, eight of which were made public. In the majority of cases, the sanction pronounced was a simple warning (56 percent), while fines were pronounced in only 25 percent of the cases.

The beginning of 2014 was marked by a landmark decision of the CNIL. On January 3, 2014, the CNIL pronounced a record fine against Google of €150,000 ($204,000) on the grounds that the terms of use available on its website since March 1, 2012, allegedly did not comply with the French Data Protection Act. Google was also required to publish this sanction on the homepage of Google.fr within eight days of it being pronounced. Google announced it would appeal this decision.

Several lessons can be learnt from the CNIL’s decision. First, that the CNIL is politically motivated to hit hard on the Internet giants, especially those who claim that their activities do not fall within the remit of the French law. No, says the CNIL. Your activities target French consumers, and thus, you must comply with the French Data Protection Act even if you are based outside the EU. This debate has been going on for years and was recently discussed in Brussels within the EU Council of Ministers' meeting in the context of the proposal for a Data Protection Regulation. As a result, Article 4 of the Directive 95/46/EC could soon be amended to allow for a broader application of European data protection laws to data controllers located outside the EU.

Second, despite it being the highest sanction ever pronounced by the CNIL, this is hardly a dissuasive financial sanction against a global business with large revenues. Currently, the CNIL cannot pronounce sanctions above €150,000 or €300,000 ($410,000) in case of a second breach within five years from the first sanction pronounced, whereas some of its counterparts in other EU countries can pronounce much heavier sanctions; e.g., last December, the Spanish DPA pronounced a €900,000 ($1,230,000) fine against Google. This could soon change, however, in light of an announcement made by the French government that it intends to introduce this year a bill on "the protection of digital rights and freedoms," which could significantly increase the CNIL's enforcement powers.

Furthermore, it seems that the CNIL's lobbying efforts within the French Parliament are finally beginning to pay off. The French Parliament has recently adopted a new law on consumer rights, which includes a provision allowing the CNIL to conduct online inspections in addition to the existing on-site inspections. This provision gives the CNIL the right, via an electronic communication service to the public, "to consult any data that are freely accessible, or rendered accessible, including by imprudence, negligence or by a third party's action, if required, by accessing and by remaining within automatic data protection systems for as long as necessary to conduct its observations." This new provision opens up the CNIL's enforcement powers to the digital world and, in particular, gives it stronger powers to inspect the activities of major Internet companies. It remains to be seen how this provision will be applied in practice, given that under the current provisions of the Data Protection Act, the CNIL's enforcement actions apply only to data controllers who either are "established on French territory" or "use means of processing located on French territory."

Finally, the Google case is a good example of the EU DPAs' recent efforts to conduct coordinated cross-border enforcement actions against multinational organizations. In the beginning of 2013, a working group was set up in Paris, led by the CNIL, for a simultaneous and coordinated enforcement action against Google in several EU countries. As a result, Google was inspected and sanctioned in multiple jurisdictions, including Spain and The Netherlands. Google is appealing these sanctions.

As the years pass by, the CNIL continues to grow and to become more resourceful. It is also more experienced and better organized. The CNIL is already very influential within the Article 29 Working Party, as recently illustrated by the Google case. Thus, companies should pay close attention to the actions of the CNIL as it becomes a more powerful authority in France and within the European Union.

Written By

Olivier Proust, CIPP/E

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