Thursday, November 08, 2007

Personal Data - this time through the CFI

The European CFI has issued its judgment today in the case, the Bavarian Lager Co v European Commission (T-194/04). The facts of the case were briefly noted in the Times Newspaper:

"The lucrative business of lobbying is set to become more transparent in Brussels after a European court ruled that privacy laws could not be used to keep lobbyists’ names secret. The European Court of First Instance ruled today that the European Commission was wrong to refuse to identify the attendees of a crucial meeting about competition in the beer industry. The Commission claimed that identifying the attendees would have been a breach of their privacy. But this morning the court said that the Commission could only refuse in limited circumstances in which the information at stake was “personal data that are capable of actually and specifically undermining the protection of privacy and the integrity of the individual”. The court added that just because a lobbyist attends a meeting with the Commission as a representative of a collective group, it does not give them an automatic right to privacy. Such a meeting — thousands of which take place with various European institutions every year — does not fall “within the sphere of [the lobbyist’s] private life” and therefore revealing attendees names “cannot constitute an interference with his private life”. The case centred on a 1996 meeting between representatives of the beer industry and European officials. Shortly after the meeting, the Commission abandoned an investigation into whether a UK law limiting the sale of certain beers was illegal. Andrew Ronnan, founder of the Bavarian Lager Company, an importer that claims to have lost out because of these rules, has been fighting to find out who attended the meeting ever since. The Commission supplied Mr Ronnan with the minutes but erased the names of five individuals. Mr Ronnan, who said he was “delighted” with today’s decision, believes the Commission will now have to identify the five people. He told Times Online that if, as he suspects, these individuals were representatives of businesses that profited from the investigation being dropped, he would be asking his lawyers to explore a compensation claim."

What is noteworthy is the concept of "personal data", which the CFI discussed in some detail in the context of Regulation (EC) No 45/2001 (on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data by the Community institutions and bodies and on the free movement of such data (OJ 2001 L 8, p. 1), was adopted on the basis of Article 286 EC):

Paras, 117 - 120:

"117 Moreover, exceptions to the principle of access to documents must be interpreted restrictively. The exception under Article 4(1)(b) of Regulation No 1049/2001 concerns only personal data that are capable of actually and specifically undermining the protection of privacy and the integrity of the individual.

118 It should also be emphasised that the fact that the concept of ‘private life’ is a broad one, in accordance with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, and that the right to the protection of personal data may constitute one of the aspects of the right to respect for private life (see, to that effect, the Opinion of Advocate General Leger in Parliament v Council and Commission, point 209), does not mean that all personal data necessarily fall within the concept of ‘private life’.

119 A fortiori, not all personal data are by their nature capable of undermining the private life of the person concerned. In recital 33 of Directive 95/46, reference is made to data which are capable by their nature of infringing fundamental freedoms or privacy and which should not be processed unless the data subject gives his explicit consent, which implies that not all data are of that nature. Such sensitive data may be included in those referred to by Article 10 of Regulation No 45/2001, concerning processing relating to particular categories of data, such as those revealing racial or ethnic origin, religious or philosophical beliefs, or data concerning health or sex life.

120 It follows from the whole of the above that, in order to be able to determine whether the exception under Article 4(1)(b) of Regulation No 1049/2001 applies, it is necessary to examine whether public access to the names of the participants at the meeting of 11 October 1996 is capable of actually and specifically undermining the protection of the privacy and the integrity of the persons concerned."

The decision should be welcomed not only for its certainty, but revisits the application of the scope of Art. 8 of the ECtHR.

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