Do bloggers need to register with the ICO?

A strict reading of data protection law suggests many (if not all) bloggers should register with the ICO, even though the latter disagrees. And, I argue, the proposal for an Information Rights Levy runs the risk of being notification under a different name

Part III of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) gives domestic effect to Article 18 of the European Data Protection Directive (the Directive). It describes the requirement that data controllers notify the fact that they are processing personal data, and the details of that processing, to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It is, on one view, a rather quaint throwback to the days when processing of personal data was seen as an activity undertaken by computer bureaux (a term found in the predecessor Data Protection Act 1984). However, it is law which is very much in force, and processing personal data without a valid notification, in circumstances where the data controller had an obligation to notify, is a criminal offence (section 21(1) DPA). Moreover, it is an offence which is regularly prosecuted by the ICO (eleven such prosecutions so far this year).

These days, it is remarkably easy to find oneself in the position of being a data controller (“a person who (either alone or jointly or in common with other persons) determines the purposes for which and the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed”). There are, according to the ICO, more than 370,000 data controllers registered. Certainly, if you are a commercial enterprise which in any way electronically handles personal data of customers or clients it is almost inevitable that you will be a data controller with an obligation to register. The exemptions to registering are laid out in regulations, and are quite restrictive – they are in the main, the following (wording taken from the ICO Notification Handbook)

Data controllers who only process personal information for: staff administration (including payroll); advertising, marketing and public relations (in connection with their own business activity); and accounts and records.
Some not-for-profit organisations.
Maintenance of a public register.
Processing personal information for judicial functions.
Processing personal information without an automated system such
as a computer.
But there is one other, key exemption. This is not within the notification regulations, but at section 36 of the DPA itself, and it exempts personal data from the whole of the Act if it is
processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes)
Thus, if you, for instance, keep a record of your children’s medical histories on your home computer, you are not caught by any of the DPA (and not required to notify with the ICO).Where this becomes interesting (it does become interesting, honestly) is when the very expansive interpretation the ICO gives to this “domestic purposes exemption” is considered in view of the extent to which people’s domestic affairs – including recreational purposes – now take place in a more public sphere, whereby large amounts of information are happily published by individuals on social media. As I have written elsewhere, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held in 2003, in the Lindqvist case, that the publishing of information on the internet could not be covered by the relevant domestic purposes exemption in the Directive. The ICO and the UK has, ever since, been in conflict with this CJEU authority, a point illustrated by the trenchant criticism delivered in the High Court in the judgment by Tugendhat J in The Law Society v Kordowski.

But I think there is a even more stark illustration of the implications of an expansive interpretation of the section 36 exemption, and I provide it. On this blog I habitually name and discuss identifiable individuals – this is processing of personal data, and I determine the purposes for which, and the manner in which, this personal data is processed. Accordingly, I become a data controller, according to the definitions at section 1(1) of the DPA. So, do I need to notify my processing with the ICO? The answer, according to the ICO, is “no”. They tell me

from the information you have provided it would be unlikely that you would be required to register in respect of your blogs and tweets
But I don’t understand this. I cannot see any exemption which applies to my processing – unless it is section 36. But in what way can I seriously claim that I am processing personal data only for my domestic (including recreational) purposes. Yes, blogging about information rights is partly a recreation to me (some might say that makes me odd) but I cannot pretend that I have no professional aims and purposes in doing so. Accordingly, the processing cannot only be for domestic purposes.I have asked the ICO to confirm what, in their view, exempts me from notification. I hope they can point me to something I have overlooked, because, firstly, anything that avoids my having to pay an annual notification fee of £35 would be welcome, and secondly, I find it rather uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of my own personal analysis that I’m potentially committing a criminal offence, even if the lead prosecutor assures me I’m not.

The point about the notification fee leads to me on to a further issue. As I say above, notification is in some ways rather quaint – it harks back to days when processing of personal data was a specific, discrete activity, and looks odd in a world where, with modern technology, millions of activities every day meet the definition of “processing personal data”. No doubt for these reasons, the concept of notification with a data protection authority is missing from the draft General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) currently slouching its way through the European legislative process. However, a proposal by the ICO suggests that, at least in the domestic sphere, notification (in another guise), might remain under new law.The ICO, faced with the fact that its main funding stream (the annual notification fees from those 370,000-plus data controllers) would disappear if the GDPR is passed in its proposed form, is lobbying for an “information rights levy”. Christopher Graham said earlier this year

I would have thought  an information rights levy, paid for by public authorities and data controllers [is needed]. We would be fully accountable to Parliament for our spending.

and the fact that this proposal made its way into the ICO’s Annual Report  with Graham saying that Parliament needs to “get on with the task” of establishing the levy, suggests that it might well be something the Ministry of Justice agrees with. As the MoJ would be first in line to have make up the funding shortfall if a levy wasn’t introduced, it is not difficult to imagine it becoming a reality.

On one view, a levy makes perfect sense – a “tax” on those who process personal data. But looked at another way, it will potentially become another outmoded means of defining what a data controller is. One cannot imagine that, for instance, bloggers and other social media users will be expected to pay it, so it is likely that, in effect, those data controllers whom the ICO currently expects to notify will be those who are required to pay the levy. One imagines, also, that pour encorager les autres, it might be made a criminal offence not to pay the levy in circumstances where a data controller should pay it but fails to do so. In reality, will it just be a mirror-image of the current notification regime?

And will I still be analysing my own blogging as being processing that belongs to that regime, but with the ICO, for pragmatic, if not legally sound, reasons, deciding the opposite?

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1 Comment

Filed under Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, Europe, GDPR, parliament

One response to “Do bloggers need to register with the ICO?

  1. Pingback: ICO indicates that (non-recreational) bloggers must register with them | informationrightsandwrongs

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