On 8 September 2016, Advocate General Bot released his opinion on the “Camera di Commercio Industria, Artigianato e Agricoltura di Lecce v. Salvatore Manni” c-398/15 (“Manni Case“). If confirmed by the European Court of Justice, the opinion will no doubt shed further light on the construction of the right to be forgotten.
The original plaintiff, Salvatore Manni, is an Italian citizen and former sole director of a building company which went bankrupt. The information about the building company’s bankruptcy and its then sole director had been permanently stored in the Companies Registry (Registro delle Imprese) held by the local Chamber of Commerce (Camera di Commercio), despite the company had been liquidated. Mr Manni claimed that access to the above data from third parties jeopardized certain sales of real estate, and accordingly requested the Companies Registry to anonymize his data or restrict access to the same Registry. The Chamber of Commerce opposed that the Companies Registry is a public database with a specific obligation to provide to everyone (upon specific request) the companies’ main information. The case escalated up to the Italian Supreme Court (Corte Suprema di Cassazione), which referred the issue to the ECJ, asking whether certain personal information (legally) made available by the Companies Registry should after a certain time be erased, or anonymized, or restricted to a limited number of third parties.
The Advocate General’s Conclusions
According to the Advocate General all Companies Registry’s data should be made available with no restriction. Indeed, the Company Law Directive 68/151 requires Member States to take all necessary measures to ensure the compulsory disclosure by a company of a number of limited information and documents, including general details of the legal representatives.
The fundamental function of the Companies Registry is to provide a complete picture of the life and history of a company, allowing anyone to read the information at any time. While acknowledging that any derogation to a (fundamental) data protection right should be limited to the strict necessary, the Advocate General stressed that allowing a public Company Registry to keep track of the whole life of a company (even when such company no longer exists) would not be disproportionate, also taking considering that the information is very limited (i.e. the name of the individuals that had the power to represent the company) and certain rights may be exercised also after the company ceased to operate (for instance for actions against the liquidators, etc.). The Registry does not play a limited statistical role, it safeguards legal certainty as a mean to encourage market transactions, also through information about who represented a certain company over a certain period of time. While Directive 68/151 does not provide for a period of time after which it is necessary to cancel a certain information, the Advocate General added that it should also not be for the Registry to determine when such information should be restricted or anonymized, as it would otherwise add a discretionary assessment of the legitimate interests of the parties involved, with obvious risks of uneven decisions from the various public Registries.
The Right to be Forgotten is not Absolute
The Advocate General’s analysis echoes the ruling of the Google Spain Case, confirming that the right to be forgotten is not absolute and should be balanced with other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression or – like in the Manni Case – interests of third parties to gain information on particular persons that held a key position in a company. The right to be forgotten will still require a case-by-case assessment, taking into account the specific type of information, its sensivity for the individual’s private life as well as the interest of the public in having access to that information and the role played by the data subject.
In this case, the essence is that a Companies Registry is not a broadly disseminated newspaper or a social media, and it should be treated accordingly. It is a public registry, aimed at facilitating certain fundamental economic transactions. It is true that, by entering a specific enquiry with the Companies Registry, it is possible gather the information that a certain individual was the sole administrator of a bankrupt company, and this information may, from the perspective of potential buyer, be a determining factor in completing a certain purchase. However, the fact of associating in a public Registry a certain person holding a specific office to a company that was declared bankrupt, is not per se derogatory for such person. A bankruptcy may be due to many factors, including some external market trends.
Albeit the Advocate General took into account the balance between the Company Law Directive (68/151) and the Data Protection Directive (95/46), his views would stand also taking into account the right to be forgotten as devised by Article 17 the European General Data Protection Regulation, which among other things also confirms that the right to be forgotten does not apply for the purposes of archiving in the public interest.
For further information on this opinion, see also here from Cristina Ulessi. It will no doubt be very interesting to review the ECJ’s final position.