New ECJ ruling on data retention: Preservation of civil rights even in difficult times!

Original published here on 22. Dezember 2016

by

Translation – German version see here.

The European Court of Justice has made a Christmas present to more than 500 million EU citizens. With its new judgment on data retention (C-203/15 of 21 December 2016) – the highest court of the European Union stresses the importance of fundamental rights. All Member States are required to respect the rights represented in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights in their national legislation. The ECJ issued an important signal that can hardly be surmounted taking into account the current political discussions on internal and external threats and the strengthening of authoritarian political currents providing the public with simplistic answers to difficult questions.

The ECJ remains true to itself

The ruling of the European Court of Justice is in line with its judgment of 8 April 2014, by which the Court annulled Directive 2006/24/EC on the retention of data. The general obligation to retain traffic and location data required by this Directive was not limited to the absolutely necessary and thus disproportionate to the fundamental rights of respect for private life and the protection of personal data (Articles 7 and 8 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights).

Despite the annulment of the Data Retention Directive by the ECJ, several Member States have continued or even broadened their practice of data retention. The latter took place in Great Britain, where shortly after the ECJ ruling – in July 2014 – a new legal basis for data retention was passed, which even went beyond the abolished EC directive. According to the British Parliament’s intention to implement the so-called „Investigatory Powers Act“, the major current commitments to compulsory data storage and the supervisory powers of the security authorities are to be extended in the short term and will include web services, in particular transactions on social networks. On November 29, 2016, the upper and lower house agreed on a corresponding legal text, which is to enter into force soon after its formal approval by the Queen. In other Member States, too, there are – differently broad-ranging – legal requirements which oblige providers of telecommunications and internet services to reserve traffic and location data whose conservation is not necessary for the provision or the billing of the respective service.

European Charter of Fundamental Rights binding for national legislature

A Swedish and a British court had asked the ECJ to clarify whether the respective national regulations on the retention of data corresponded to the European legal requirements.

In its new ruling the ECJ answered this question by stating that national regulations which provide a general and indiscriminate storage of data are not in line with the EU law. A national regulation providing for the storage of traffic and location data, is to be regarded as serious interference in fundamental rights. Member States must not maintain or re-adopt rules which are based on, or even go beyond, an EU act which has been annulled on grounds of its fundamental illegality.

The provisions of EU law bind the national legislature. The EU Directive 2002/58/EC on data protection in electronic communications (the ePrivacy Directive) has to be interpreted in the light of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Exceptions to the protection of personal data should be limited to the absolutely necessary. This applies not only to the rules on data retention, but also to the access of authorities to the stored data. A national provision providing for general and indiscriminate data retention which does not require a link between the data for which it is originally intended to be stored and a threat to public security, and in particular is not limiting the data on a period and / or a geographical area and / or of a group of persons which could be involved in a serious criminal act, transcends the limits of the absolutely necessary and can not be regarded as justified in a democratic society. Laws of Member States that do not meet these requirements must be abolished or amended accordingly.

With regard to the contested British and Swedish laws, the competent national courts which had appealed to the ECJ are now required to enforce the ECJ ruling in substance. However, even the parliaments and governments of the Member States are, too, responsible for reviewing and, where appropriate, correcting the relevant provisions of national law.

What happens to German data retention?

The implications of the ECJ ruling for the German data retention recently reintroduced must also be urgently examined. The retention obligations of the new German Data Retention Act remain behind the predecessor regulation, which was repealed by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2010. However, it is highly doubtful whether the provisions of the ECJ will be fulfilled by the new data retention act, since it obliges the telecommunications providers to store the data without any material restriction on a specific area or a particular risk situation.

The fact that the Federal Government or the parliamentary fractions backing them will now carry out this examination in an objective manner appears to be highly unlikely in the light of the additional powers which they have recently decided to hand over to the security authorities. In the end, the Federal Constitutional Court will probably have to ensure clarity again.

Peter Schaar (21 December 2016)

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