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Google challenges France’s first swing of the GDPR stick

Court Legal

Google has stated it will appeal the French regulator’s decision to dish out a €50 million fine for not being forthright enough with how it collects, stores and processes user’s personal data.

For Google, this is not about the money. €50 million for Google is nothing. This is a company which generated $33.7 billion over the final quarter of 2018. It would take a matter of minutes for the team to pay off this fine. However, should this ruling be allowed to stand Google would have to alter its business model, as would the rest of the data-sharing economy, causing a very unwelcomed, and potentially costly, disruption.

“The 50 million euro fine issued by the CNIL on 21 January 2019 significantly impacts Google as it directly challenges its business model based on the processing of personal data,” said Sonia Cissé, Head of TMT Practice of law firm Linklaters in Paris.

“Considering the seriousness of the CNIL’s findings and the broad publicity of this case, a potential appeal by Google is no surprise and makes perfect sense from a legal-strategy perspective.”

On Monday, France’s National Data Protection Commission (CNIL) dished out the fine for two violations of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Firstly, the search giant was not specific enough when requesting consent from users. Secondly, for users who wanted to dig deeper into the Google data practices, the company made it unnecessarily difficult to see the entire picture. Google was being too vague and not accessible enough.

“Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by Google,” the CNIL said in a statement.

This is the first time a regulator has used GDPR to hold one of the internet giants accountable, but there are plenty of other cases in the pipeline. Google is of course not the only target, as various different privacy advocates across the bloc lodge their complaints against the likes of Spotify, Amazon and Apple, just to name a few others.

In appealing this case, Google is making itself the tip of the spear for the entire internet ecosystem. There will be multiple appeals against the various rulings over the coming months because of how important precedent in this saga. If Google was to just let this ruling stand, it is effectively validating its opinion potentially undermining its own business model. If similar ruling start to appear across the continent the disruption to the data-sharing economy would be massive.

“In all likelihood, Google will challenge the CNIL’s decision on two main grounds: (i) procedural aspects (i.e., the competence of the CNIL); and (ii) the content of the case (i.e., challenging the facts),” said Cissé.

“Should Google be able to demonstrate that Google Ireland Limited was its main establishment in the European Union (EU) at the time of the CNIL’s investigations, then the competence of the CNIL could be validly challenged.

“Second, the content of the decision is another ground for action, and it will be up to the French administrative judges to determine, in light of the circumstances at stake, whether the transparency requirements under GDPR were met or not.”

GDPR is an incredibly complicated set of rules mainly because there are so many different definitions and clauses, but also certain exemptions. In most cases, companies would have to obtain consent from users to use data for explicit purposes, retaining the data only until these purposes have been satisfied. However, companies do not have to obtain consent when it is necessary to comply with another law, or there are ‘legitimate interests’. It paints a complicated picture.

Of course, for those who are more privacy sensitive, such rules and grey areas are a bounty of riches. The rules have created amble opportunity to challenge the internet giants’ business models, as well as the influence they have over the world. One of those is privacy campaigner Max Schrems.

“We are very pleased that for the first time a European data protection authority is using the possibilities of GDPR to punish clear violations of the law,” Schrems said following the CNIL ruling.

“Following the introduction of GDPR, we have found that large corporations such as Google simply ‘interpret the law differently’ and have often only superficially adapted their products. It is important that the authorities make it clear that simply claiming to be compliant is not enough.”

Schrems’ firm, None of Your Business (NYOB), has filed several complaints against other internet businesses on the grounds of accessibility. Those who will come under the scrutiny of Austrian courts include Apple, DAZN, Filmmit, Netflix and Amazon. More specifically, these complaints suggest the companies violated GDPR’s ‘right to access’, enshrined in Article 15 GDPR and Article 8(2) of the Chart of Fundamental Rights.

All of these cases will dictate how the internet economy will function over the coming years, but this battle between the CNIL and Google could prove to be a critical one, such is the power of precedent in the legal world.

“In a nutshell, it is highly difficult to identify certainties regarding the outcome of Google’s appeal,” said Cissé.

“Since data protection is a field of law particularly subject to interpretation and grey areas, one cannot exclude the possibility that Google could be successful in appealing the CNIL’s decision before the French Administrative Supreme Court. In any event, the ruling of the French administrative judges will be closely monitored by all the tech companies.”


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