The ICO’s plan for an “information rights levy” appears to have been scuppered by the government. But is retaining data protection notification fees the way to solve the funding problem?
Back in the heady days of January 2012, when a naive but optimistic European Commission proposed a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to replace the existing 1995 Directive, one of the less-commented-on proposals was to remove the requirement for data controllers to notify their processing activities to the national data protection authority. However, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) certainly noticed it, because the implications were that, at a stroke, a large amount of ICO funding would disappear. Currently, section 18(5) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and accompanying secondary legislation, mean that data controllers (unless they have an exemption) must pay an annual fee to the ICO of either £35 or £500 (depending upon the size of the organisation). In 2012-2013 this equated to an estimated income of £17.4m, and this income effectively funds all of the ICO’s data protection regulatory actions (its FOI functions are funded by grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Justice).
Three years later, and the GDPR is still not with us. However, it will eventually be passed, and when it is, it seems certain that the requirement under European law to notify will be gone. Because of this, as the Justice Committee recognised in 2013, alternative ICO funding means need to be identified as soon as possible. The ICO’s preferred choice, and one which Christopher Graham has certainly been pushing for, was an “Information Rights Levy”, the details of which were not specified, but which it appears was proposed to be paid by data controllers and public authorities (subject to FOI) alike. In the 2013/14 ICO Annual Report Graham was bullish in calling for action:
Parliament needs to get on with the task of establishing a single, graduated information rights levy to fund the important work of the ICO as the effective upholder of our vital right to privacy and right to know
But this robust approach doesn’t seem to have worked. At a recent meeting of the ICO Management Board a much more pessimistic view emerges. In a report entitled “Registration Fee Strategy” it is said that
The ICO has previously highlighted the need for an ‘information rights fee’ or one fee, paid by organisations directly to the ICO, to fund all information rights activities. Given concerns across government that this would result in private sector cross subsidising public sector work, the ICO recognises that this is unlikely in the short term
The report goes on, therefore, to talk about proposed changes to the current fee/notification process, and about ways of identifying who needs to pay.
But, oddly, it seems to assume that although the GDPR will remove the requirement for a data controller to notify processing to the ICO, the UK will retain the discretion to continue with such arrangements (and to charge a fee). I’m not sure this is right. As I’ve written previously, under data protection law at least some recreational bloggers have a requirement to notify (and pay a fee), and the legal authorities are clear that the law’s ambit extends to, for instance, individuals operating domestic CCTV, if that CCTV covers public places where identifiable individuals are. Indeed, as the 2004 Lindqvist case found
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]
It is arguable that, to varying extents, we are all data controllers now (and ones who will struggle to avail ourselves of the data protection exemption for domestic purposes). Levying a fee on all of us, in order that we can lawfully express ourselves, has the potential to be a serious infringement of our right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and even more directly, Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The problem of how to effectively fund the ICO in a time of austerity is a challenging one, and I don’t envy those at the ICO and in government who are trying to solve it, but levying a tax on freedom of expression (which notification arguably already is, and would almost certainly be if the GDPR doesn’t actually require notification) is not the way to do so.
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..