Consent under the General Data Protection Regulation

The consent of the individual for use of their information has long been a cornerstone of privacy and data protection law around the world.  It is widely seen as one of the simplest and most transparent way to ensure fair and legal processing.  Yet in many ways consent has come under increasing attack in terms of its suitability to achieve this in a balanced way.  In a digital world, with ever more personal data being collected and analysed, on ever smaller screens, or in the case of many Internet of Things (IoT) devices no screen at all, the utility, validity and viability of consent based data processing is regularly questioned, even if the alternatives seem paternalistic or sneaky.

With this in mind it only seems right to delve into the consent provisions laid out in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and see what we find.  I’m not going to promise a complete analysis here of all the aspects of the regulation that touch on or are touched by the issue of consent, but hopefully will cover the most salient, practical points of concern.

The Definition

Article 4 of the GDPR provides the core definition of consent as:

any freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of his or her wishes by which the data subject, either by a statement or by a clear affirmative action, signifies agreement to personal data relating to them being processed;

Although the final text only requires consent to be explicit for certain types of data processing, the definition here sets quite a high bar for all forms of consent.

Affirmative Action

Notably, we have this idea of “a clear affirmative action”, and in Recital 25 this is spelled out in terms of both what is and isn’t valid so:

This could include ticking a box when visiting an Internet website, choosing technical settings for information society services or by any other statement or conduct which clearly indicates in this context the data subject’s acceptance of the proposed processing of their personal data.

Silence, pre-ticked boxes or inactivity should therefore not constitute consent.

This last element particularly seems to destroy the notion of ‘implied consent’ where simply using a service, particularly a digital one, can be taken as an indication of agreement.

So the subject must take an action, and that action will have to be a clear indication of consent.  This would appear to rule out any other actions a user might make on their device that could easily be misinterpreted, a subject I may return to at a later date.

Freely Given

There is a particularly high bar for determining whether or not consent is freely given and this may create the greatest difficulties for certain types of digital services.

There must be a “genuine and free choice”, which is particularly emphasised in Article 7(4):

When assessing whether consent is freely given, utmost account shall be taken of the fact whether, among others, the performance of a contract, including the provision of a service, is made conditional on the consent to the processing of data that is not necessary for the performance of this contract.

Many so-called ‘free’ web services rely on monetisation through behavioural advertising, which itself means profiling of visitors.  If access to those services is made conditional on allowing profiling – then there can be no valid consent for the profiling activity.

One of the recent trends we have seen is publishers preventing visitors using Ad-Blockers from viewing content.  This strategy may have to be re-thought, particularly as Recital 32 makes clear: “consent should not be regarded as freely-given if the data subject… is unable to refused or withdraw consent without detriment.

Article 7(3) also makes the point that “It shall be as easy to withdraw consent as give it.

When taken in conjunction with the first point about affirmative action, this suggests that if consent is provided through an action like a click on a button or link, then to be freely given it must also be withdrawn through a similarly simple and easily accessible action.

Specific and Informed

For consent to data processing to be specific, it must be separated from other type of consent and actions.  This might mean for example that agreeing to the terms of service for delivery of an item you have bought online, should be a separate action from agreeing to have your data shared with third parties for marketing purposes.

In addition, being informed means knowing about all the different purposes of processing, and knowing the identity of the data controller, as a bare minimum.  It also means being informed of ones rights, such as the ability to withdraw consent or object to some types of processing, like profiling.

Although these kind of provisions have been around a long time – the requirements to meet them are much more defined in the GDPR.  There has been a long history of smaller websites in particular cutting and pasting privacy notices from other sources without much thought.  That kind of approach will be much higher risk under the GDPR.  To produce a valid notice, organisations will have to have a thorough knowledge of their uses of personal data.

Demonstrating Consent

One of the many significant changes introduced by the GDPR is the move towards greater organisational accountability and a shifting of the burden of proof for compliance.

So one of the conditions for valid consent, in Article 7(1) states “the controller shall be able to demonstrate that consent was given by the data subject to the processing of their personal data.

This means not just recording the fact that someone ticked a box in a form, but having an audit trail that links the action to any notice and the actual processing of the data concerned.

Failure to be able to verify consent records in some way will itself be a breach of the requirements for legal consent. This not only exposes the organisation to a risk of enforcement, it can also potentially render large swathes of personal data useless for any purposes that are reliant on consent.

Administrative Fines

It is well known that the GDPR creates the ability for regulators to impose huge fines on organisations for compliance failures.  What has been less publicised is the granularity of detail of how these fines might be meted out.

In the UK we saw throughout 2015 how the ICO handed out its largest fines for unsolicited (read unconsented) marketing.  The GDPR strengthens the hand of regulators for this type of enforcement.

So in Article 79 we see that infringements of the basic principles of processing “including conditions for consent” can be subject to the highest level of fines, which may be the higher of 20 Million Euros or 4% of  “total worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year”. Ouch.


This area of compliance has until now and for many businesses been the least likely to be well managed, and most likely to be bending or breaking the rules.  Under the GDPR legally valid, documented consent could well become one of the most important things to get right.

If you need any help preparing for the GDPR, and particularly with issues around use and proof of consent, please get in touch today.


Optanon GDPR Compliance Manager

We have been working for several months now on a new platform to help organisations assess their readiness to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

GDPR Compliance Manager will be released later this year as part of the stable of Optanon brand products that currently includes our Website Auditor and Cookie Consent solutions.

The platform will enable organisations to work out what changes they will need to put in place to meet the requirements of the GDPR before it comes into force.  In addition it provides planning and documentation functionality to support a change programme as well as produce the accountability documentation that will be required.

We will be releasing more information in the coming weeks and months, but for now, here is a preview screen shot.


If you would like to know more about how Optanon GDPR Compliance Manager might help you, and arrange a demo, please give us a call or drop us an email.

General Data Protection Regulation Top Ten Issues

The ink is barely dry on the draft, but the  EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) looks set to change the regulatory environment for personal information not just in the EU, but around the world. Its aim is to create a legal infrastructure for the use of personal data that is fit for purpose, both today and in the future.

The GDPR was designed to increase legal certainty with regards to information flows both within the EU’s borders and beyond. It also introduces stronger consumer protections, with requirements for greater transparency and accountability about how data is used by businesses, not-for-profits and governments alike.

This is intended to give individuals increased trust in data practices.  Consumer research in the last few years has shown consistently high levels of concern and lack of trust in this area, and this is believed to be a potential brake on the future growth of digital technologies.

However, in order to achieve these goals the GDPR does come with some stings in its tail. It places much greater requirements on businesses to communicate effectively with customers, and obtain much clearer consent for the use of their data.  Organisations also have to provide customer choice mechanisms, and there is a greater emphasis on documenting data processing activity. And then of course there are the fines.

At over 200 pages it is a very wide ranging instrument.  However, for those who haven’t had time to read it yet, these are what we think the top 10 issues for most organisations will be.

1.  A broader definition of Personal Data

As we predicted earlier, the scope of what constitutes ‘personal data’ has explicitly been broadened to include any information ‘relating to’ an individual. This specifically includes ‘online identifiers’ so cookies and the advertising IDs seen in the mobile eco-system will be caught up, along with anything that contributes to identifying an individual, or links to such identifying information. This has some widespread implications for online tracking in particular.

2.  A higher bar for consent

Whilst the final text shied away from explicit consent as a requirement, except when special categories of (sensitive) data are concerned, there is still much emphasis on gaining consent through active user mechanisms like tick boxes.

A key part of the test of the validity of consent is whether consumers understand what they are agreeing to, and are given a meaningful choice. There is also a significant shift in the burden of proof.  You will need to be able to provide evidence that you obtained consent from specific data subjects, which is going to require much better record keeping for many organisations.

3.  Data Protection Officers

Although not a universal requirement, many organisations will be required to appoint a Data Protection Officer (DPO) to oversee data uses and ensure compliance with the law. They will be mandatory in the public sector, but for private sector organisations the key test will be whether the organisation is involved in “systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale“, however it is not clear at this time how ‘large scale’ will be interpreted.

Earlier, more detailed, requirements for the skills and experience of the DPO and guarantees over their employment, have been dropped but a key issue in the short to medium term will be a lack of the right people to fill such roles.

DPOs however can be outsourced, which may create a market for new services, especially to cater for the needs of smaller businesses.  The DPO responsibilities can also be given to someone alongside other work within the organisation, as long as this does not create a conflict of interest.  So training existing staff into the role could be a viable option for many.

4.  Transparency and Accountability

The GDPR scraps the need for controllers to register with their Data Protection Authority (DPA), but replaces this with a requirement to both better inform data subjects about practices and rights, and to keep records that can be made available on request – such as in the event of a data breach or a compliance complaint.  Such records are about demonstrating that the organisation has thought through the impact of its systems and processes, and made informed choices about how to comply with the GDPR.  The Data Protection or Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) is one example of such documentation.  It is intended that a PIA will show that an organisation has considered the risks associated with its particular personal data practices, and taken reasonable steps to control or mitigate them.

There are also new requirements on the level of detail that organisations must provide to data subjects about their practices, as well as a need to make sure that this information is both accessible and easy to understand. In particular there is a need to explain the logic behind decisions made on the basis of analysing personal data – which may have particular significance in some sectors that have relied on such processes being largely secret. Organisations are also expected to inform subjects about their rights and how to exercise them.

5.  Data Protection by Design and Default

Although references to this have been cut back in comparison with earlier versions of the text, the GDPR contains requirements that the design of systems and processes are required to give consideration to compliance with the principles of data protection. Particular emphasis is placed on the ideas of only collecting data necessary to fulfil specific purposes, discarding it when it is no longer required, and protecting data subject rights.

It also sets up the possibility for the development of certifications and codes of practice that organisations can follow to help meet these requirements.  Keep an eye for these as they develop.  In particular we expect DPAs to get involved in this area.  They will be losing their registration fees and therefore needing new sources of income.  In the UK the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has already been developing this idea, so expect it to continue. Trade bodies are also likely to have a role to play here.

6.  The Right to Erasure and Data Portability

These new data subject rights are likely to pose challenges for many organisations. The right to erasure is a clarification of the much talked about ‘right to be forgotten’.   Although the circumstances when the right can be exercised have been made clearer, the balancing against other rights and obligations is still needed.

The right to have a copy of your data in a machine readable form to transfer to another provider may be difficult at first, but it could also lead to better systems interoperability in the longer term – which is already a growing technology trend.  In particular this provision may facilitate the development of the market for ‘personal data stores’, an idea that has long been talked about, but not yet fully realised as providers have struggled with sustainable and scalable business models.

7.  Removal of Subject Access Request Fees

Data subjects have a right to know whether or not an organisation is processing their personal data, what that data is and the purposes of the processing.  The GDPR removes the ability to charge an upfront fee for providing such information, and there is a risk requests will increase as a result of this, pushing up costs.  Current allowable fees don’t exactly cover the cost of  a Subject Access Request (SAR), but are seen as a deterrent to time wasters.  If companies are no longer able to charge fees, it is feared this could open the floodgates to many more SARs.

Companies will be allowed to charge for subsequent copies of the same data, which may reduce the risk of this to some extent. However, it may be worth investing in making sure you can respond to such requests as efficiently as possible, which will not be easy in many cases.

8.  Reporting Data Breaches

Data controllers will be required to report data breaches to their DPA, unless it is unlikely to represent a risk to the rights and freedoms of the individuals concerned. However this qualification may be difficult to judge, so in many cases, it will be safer to notify. The notice must be made within 72 hours of becoming aware of it, unless there are exceptional circumstances, which will have to be justified.

Where the risks to individuals is high, then the data subjects themselves will also need to be notified, although a specific time scale is not specified for this.  It is also worth noting that the DPA can instruct an organisation to inform data subjects if they haven’t already, so we can expect to see further guidance on the circumstances when it would be correct to do so.

9.  Fines

The GDPR very deliberately raises the bar in terms of the ability for DPAs to issue fines for breaches of the rules.  They can go as high as 4% of global turnover.  Not only are these designed to ensure data protection becomes a board level issue, by taking into account worldwide revenues, they seek to side step attempts by multinationals to engage in fine-avoidance business structures.

It is also worth noting that fines can be levied without the necessity to demonstrate harm – although the largest ones will likely be reserved for cases where data subjects have directly suffered damages.

10.  Data Processor Responsibilities

Organisations that only process data on instructions from their client are not directly covered by the current data protection regime.  Their actions were assumed to be governed by agreement with the customer who would be the data controller, and therefore directly responsible for the actions of the processor. However this all changes under the GDPR, and processors now have direct legal obligations and responsibilities.

In particular this means that processors can in certain circumstances be held directly liable and be required to pay compensation to a data subject. It will therefore become very important to establish the contractual relationships and liabilities of the different parties in a controller/processor relationship, and the costs of some services by processors may rise to offset additional risks and insurance costs.


We hope you find this useful.  In future posts we will look at more details of what you can do to prepare, as well as looking into each of these areas in more detail.

In the mean time, if you have any questions and would like to know more about how the GDPR might effect your business, do get in touch and we will be happy to help.

Safe Harbour Update

After days of anticipation following the decision by the EU’s highest court to strike down the Safe Harbour mechanism for transferring personal data to the US, the Data Protection Authorities have now spoken.

The Article 29 Working Party, the body that represents the collective voice of the EU’s privacy enforcers issued a statement on the 16 October.  They have promised not to rock the boat just yet, but that if a viable alternative to Safe Harbour is not found by the end of January 2016, there is a clear warning to batten down the hatches and prepare for a storm of enforcement.

OK, enough of the puns.

What this amounts to is more pressure to finish negotiations on Safe Harbour 2.0.  Transfers based on Safe Harbour are now unlawful they state, however Standard Contractual Clauses and Binding corporate rule are still valid tools.

Nonetheless, there is a recognition it seems that these are not completely watertight (OK, one more), as they will continue to consider what the court judgement means for these other transfer tools, and the continued use of them is qualified as allowable ‘during this period’.

They also emphasise the fact that the ‘massive and indiscriminate surveillance’ unearthed by Edward Snowden remains an unresolved issue at the heart of the problem.

With this in mind, readers should also take a look at the blog from Microsoft’s respected Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith.  Addressing the issues that we have touched on ourselves, about the problems of jurisdictional boundaries and the global web, his suggestions for a way forward are highly practical.

At the heart is the idea that a citizens legal protections should follow their data wherever it is stored.  If this could become the basis of new international agreements, many of the issues could be resolved, including processes for lawful access by security and government agencies.

Sounds like plain sailing to me.

Google Gets Sanctioned for Dutch Data Protection Law Infringements

The Dutch Data Protection Authority the CBP has this week issued sanctions against Google which could result in a fine of up to 15 million Euros if it doesn’t make significant changes to its privacy policy by February 2015.

Back in 2012, Google decided to combine all of its services under a single privacy policy, ostensibly for the purpose simplification.  At the same time this enabled it to combine user data from its diverse services, some of which it acquired rather than developed, into what amounts to a single customer view, and one that is probably a more complete picture of a larger number of people than almost any other company on the planet, save for perhaps Facebook.

This change raised immediate concerns about whether the new policy was in line with EU data protection laws.  In particular the focus has been on whether the company was giving people sufficient information about its practices, and therefore whether any consent could be considered valid.

The DPAs in 6 EU countries France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands decided to investigate further.

In November 2013, the CBP made the decision that the policy was in breach of the law, and has outline steps needed to bring the company in line.  The new sanctions are the end result of this decision and will kick in from the end of February 2015 if Google fails to meet all demands.  The CBP has said the sanctions will be ‘incremental’. Although it fails to clarify what this means it would seem logical to assume that the size of the fine will rise over time as long as the company remains non-compliant.

ECJ Rules that Search Engines are Data Controllers

The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the EU, has made a decision against Google this week that may well prove to be a turning point for data protection rights in Europe, and provide a mechanism for individuals to exercise the Right to be Forgotten which is provided for in the draft Data Protection Regulation.

It has caused quite a stir, with many arguing that it marks a blow for freedom of expression.  However as much as anything it has also highlighted the cultural differences between the USA and Europe.  In Europe the right of free expression is more balanced against the right to privacy.

However, the overlooked factor in most of the stories on this issue, is that the ruling presents a fundamentally different view of the role of search engines as cataloguers of the web, than most people have, and as they themselves would like to be seen.

Google argued that it is not in control of the content of pages it indexes.  As a Data Processor it could not be held responsible for the personal data on the pages it indexes, and therefore would have no liability under EU data protection law.

The court by contrast ruled that in creating its index and generating a link as a result of the search, Google is re-using the data for a different purpose. It also spelled out that the purpose was in no small part to create a market for its advertising which also appears in the search results.

The change in purpose, and also because Google is in control of  how the index is formed, means that it has to be seen as a Data Controller when it displays search results.  Which in turn then automatically means that it is responsible for the protection of the personal data, and upholding the rights of the individual.

This is really the game changer here, and what may change the very nature of search in the future.  Or will it?

There has been an assumption that the court ruling means that Google must remove the page in question from its index. This is what has got people agitated and talking about censorship.  However, I don’t think the ruling suggests this.

Another point that is missed in a lot of commentary, is that this all stems from a search based on the person’s name.  It is the appearance of the page in the search result against the name that is problematic according to the court.

Google therefore may not need to remove the page itself from its index, only the link between the name and the page.  This would enable the page itself to continue to appear in other search results that did not make use of the persons name.

It would limit the ability to search for information about people directly, but it wouldn’t restrict the ability to find the same content on a different basis.

Of course, we are yet to see if such an interpretation is acceptable, but it would be a lot less radical than a requirement to remove the link to the content entirely.