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Why are German courts allowed to take my global privacy policy apart?

Your service is innovative, you are ambitious, and the European digital market is there for the taking. Except that the EU is not the digital single market it strives to be just yet. Recent years have Your service is innovative, you are ambitious, and the European digital market is there for the taking. Except that the EU is not the digital single market it strives to be just yet. Recent years have seen a rise in legal disputes in Germany over allegedly unlawful clauses in standard business terms – in more and more cases including privacy policies and consent wording. Apple, Facebook, Google have all been there. They all lost on part of the language.

The story goes…

The starting point often begins with an international business looking to have a single global or pan-European privacy policy. It might not be perfect in all respects, but it was considered to be a reasonable compromise between addressing multiple local law requirements, keeping your business scalable, and creating transparency for customers. Now, with global expansion comes the inevitable local litigation.

The typical scenario that arises for international businesses expanding into Germany is this: An aggressive local market player trying to hold on to its pre-new economy assets sends you a warning letter, alleging your privacy policy breaches German law requirements, and includes a cease-and-desist undertaking aimed at forcing you to refrain from using unlawful privacy policy clauses.

If you are big and established, the warning letter may come from a consumer protection association that happens to have singled out you or your industry. If you refuse to comply with the warning letter, the dispute may go to court. If you lose, the court will issue an injunction preventing you from using certain language in your privacy policy. If you infringe the injunction after being served the same, judicial fines may ensue.

The legal mechanism

These warning letters typically allege that your privacy policy is not in full compliance with strict German data protection and consumer protection law. Where this is the case, privacy infringements can be actioned by competitors and consumer protection associations – note: these actions are based solely on the language of your privacy policy, irrespective of your actual privacy practices. These actions are a kind of "privately-initiated law enforcement" as there is no public regulator generally watching over use of privacy policies.

Furthermore, in certain cases – and especially where privacy policies are peppered with language stating that the user "consents" to the collection and use of their information – the privacy policy may even qualify as ‘standard business terms’ under German consumer protection law, opening the door for the full broadside of German consumer protection law scrutiny.

So, what’s the solution?

In the long run, courts or lawmakers will have to resolve the dilemma between two conflicting EU law principles: privacy regulation on a "country of origin" basis vs. consumer protection and unfair competition laws that apply wherever consumers are targeted. In essence, the question is: Which should prevail, applicable law principles under the Data Protection Directive (or the General Data Protection Regulation bound to be issued any decade now) or local law consumer protection principles under Rome I and II Regulations?

In the short term, an approach to mitigating legal and practical risks is to provide a localised privacy policy just for German consumers that is compliant with local law. Or, usually less burdensome, make your policy information-only, i.e. delete consent wording and clauses curtailing consumers’ rights in order to at least keep the policy from being subjected to full consumer protection scrutiny.

The downside to this approach is that it may require deviating from your global approach on a privacy policy. On the upside, it will spare you the nuisance of dealing with this kind of warning letter which is difficult to fight off. Remember: This is all about the language of your privacy policy, not what your real-world privacy compliance looks like.

Stay tuned for more information on warning letter squabbles regarding e-mail marketing regulations.

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