The applicants were two Finnish companies. Since 1994 they had collected data from the Finnish tax authorities for publication in list form in a Finnish newspaper. This data comprised the names of individuals and the amount of their taxable income and assets (“taxation data”). In 2003 the first applicant also began to transfer the taxation data to the second applicant to enable the latter, in conjunction with a mobile phone operator, to provide access to individuals’ taxation data by text message. Under Finnish law, this data was a matter of public record and, subject to certain conditions, the public and journalists were permitted to access it.
Following domestic proceedings, in 2009 the Finnish Data Protection Board (“DPB”) prohibited the applicants’ processing of the taxation data in this way. The applicants attempted unsuccessfully to appeal this decision before the Finnish courts. On the applicants’ application to the ECtHR, the Fourth Section held that the DPB’s decision did not constitute a violation of their Art.10 right to freedom of expression.
The Grand Chamber (“GC”) agreed by a majority of 15-2 that there had been no violation of Art.10.
Engagement of Article 8: The GC reiterated that the broad protection afforded by Art.8 was capable of extending to information already in the public domain, and to processing or publication of data on an individual “in a manner or degree beyond that normally foreseeable”: -. It concluded that the taxation data collected, processed and published by the applicants “clearly concerned the private life of those individuals” notwithstanding that it was accessible to the public: .
Interference “prescribed by law”: The GC further held that although the DPB’s decision was an interference with the applicants’ Art.10 rights, it was one “prescribed by law”: -. In particular, it held that as the applicants were media professionals, they should have been aware that the “mass collection of data and its wholesale dissemination” might not be considered processing “solely” for journalistic purposes under the relevant domestic and EU law: .
Interference had legitimate aim: The GC rejected the applicants’ argument that there was no legitimate aim for the interference in the present case, as any threat to privacy by their actions was abstract and hypothetical. It noted that there had in fact been privacy complaints from individuals whose taxation data had been published, and held that it was arguable that “all Finnish taxpayers were affected, directly or indirectly” by the applicants’ actions: .
Interference “necessary in a democratic society”: In holding that the interference was necessary, the GC relied on established criteria for balancing the competing Art.8 and 10 rights (though noting that some would have more or less relevance in the particular circumstances of the case): -.
1) Contribution of publication to a debate of public interest
The GC acknowledged that it was “unquestionable” that permitting public access to taxation data (such access having a constitutional basis in Finnish law) was designed to enable such debate: . However, the GC was not persuaded that publication of the raw taxation data by the applicants contributed to such a debate: -.
2) Subject of the publication
The GC noted that of the 1.2 million individuals listed by the applicants, only very few were individuals with a high net income, public figures or well-known personalities: . Even assuming, as the applicants had argued, that the relative anonymity of the individuals due to the volume of taxation data published reduced the interference with their Art.8 rights, that data was personal in nature and was accessed by the applicants for a purpose other than that for which it was provided to the tax authorities: .
3) Manner of obtaining information
The GC noted that, whilst the taxation data had been obtained legally, the applicants had circumvented the normal channels for obtaining it: .
4) Content, form and consequences of publication
The GC held that the fact that the data were accessible to the public (subject to conditions) did not mean that they could be published to an unlimited extent, and that the publication in this case rendered it accessible in a manner and to an extent not intended by the legislator: .
5) Gravity of sanction
The GC noted that the applicants weren’t prohibited from publishing the taxation data at all, but had to do so in a manner consistent with domestic and EU law: .
The GC therefore concluded that the domestic courts had struck the right balance between the competing rights: .
The judgment is available here.