Was a now-deleted tweet by Russell Brand, revealing a journalist’s private number, caught by data protection law?
Data protection law applies to anyone who “processes” (which includes “disclosure…by transmission”) “personal data” (data relating to an identifiable living individual) as a “data controller” (the person who determines the purposes for which and the manner in which the processing occurs). Rather dramatically, in strict terms, this means that most individuals actually and regularly process personal data as data controllers. And nearly everyone would be caught by the obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), were it not for the exemption at section 36. This provides that
Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the data protection principles and the provisions of Parts II and III
Data protection nerds will spot that exemption from the data protection principles and Parts II and III of the DPA is effectively an exemption from whole Act. So in general terms individuals who restrict their processing of personal data to domestic purposes are outwith the DPA’s ambit.
The extent of this exemption in terms of publication of information on the internet is subject to some disagreement. On one side is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who say in their guidance that it applies when an individual uses an online forum purely for domestic purposes, and on the other side are the Court of Justice of the European Union (and me) who said in the 2003 Lindqvist case that
The act of referring, on an internet page, to various persons and identifying them by name or by other means, for instance by giving their telephone number…constitutes the processing of personal data…[and] is not covered by any of the exceptionsin Article 3(2) of Directive 95/46 [section 36 of the DPA transposes Article 3(2) into domestic law]
Nonetheless, it is clear that publishing personal data on the internet for reasons not purely domestic constitutes an act of processing to which the DPA applies (let us assume that the act of publishing was a deliberate one, determined by the publisher). So when the comedian Russell Brand today decided to tweet a picture of a journalist’s business card, with an arrow pointing towards the journalist’s mobile phone number (which was not, for what it’s worth, already in the public domain – I checked with a Google search) he was processing that journalist’s personal data (note that data relating to an individual’s business life is still their personal data). Can he avail himself of the DPA domestic purposes exemption? No, says the CJEU, of course, following Lindqvist. But no, also, would surely say the ICO: this act by Brand was not purely domestic. Brand has 8.7 million twitter followers – I have no doubt that some will have taken the tweet as an invitation to call the journalist. It is quite possible that some of those calls will be offensive, or abusive, or even threatening.
Whilst I have been drafting this blog post Brand has deleted the tweet: that is to his credit. But of course, when you have so many millions of followers, the damage is already done – the picture is saved to hard drives, is mirrored by other sites, is emailed around. And, I am sure, the journalist will have to change his number, and maybe not much harm will have been caused, but the tweet was nasty, and unfair (although I have no doubt Brand was provoked in some way). If it was unfair (and lacking a legal basis for the publication) it was in contravention of the first data protection principle which requires that personal data be processed fairly and lawfully and with an appropriate legitimating condition. And because – as I submit – Brand cannot plead the domestic purposes exemption, it was in contravention of the DPA. However, whether the journalist will take any private action, and whether the ICO will take any enforcement action, I doubt.
The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.