Version 1.0 dated 06 September 2020 adopted for public consultation. Go to the finalized version.
Go to official PDF version.
The concepts of controller, joint controller and processor play a crucial role in the application of the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (GDPR), since they determine who shall be responsible for compliance with different data protection rules, and how data subjects can exercise their rights in practice. The precise meaning of these concepts and the criteria for their correct interpretation must be sufficiently clear and consistent throughout the European Economic Area (EEA).
The concepts of controller, joint controller and processor are functional concepts in that they aim to allocate responsibilities according to the actual roles of the parties and autonomous concepts in the sense that they should be interpreted mainly according to EU data protection law.
In principle, there is no limitation as to the type of entity that may assume the role of a controller but in practice it is usually the organisation as such, and not an individual within the organisation (such as the CEO, an employee or a member of the board), that acts as a controller.
A controller is a body that decides certain key elements of the processing. Controllership may be defined by law or may stem from an analysis of the factual elements or circumstances of the case. Certain processing activities can be seen as naturally attached to the role of an entity (an employer to employees, a publisher to subscribers or an association to its members). In many cases, the terms of a contract can help identify the controller, although they are not decisive in all circumstances.
A controller determines the purposes and means of the processing, i.e. the why and how of the processing. The controller must decide on both purposes and means. However, some more practical aspects of implementation (“non-essential means”) can be left to the processor. It is not necessary that the controller actually has access to the data that is being processed to be qualified as a controller.
The qualification as joint controllers may arise where more than one actor is involved in the processing. The GDPR introduces specific rules for joint controllers and sets a framework to govern their relationship. The overarching criterion for joint controllership to exist is the joint participation of two or more entities in the determination of the purposes and means of a processing operation. Joint participation can take the form of a common decision taken by two or more entities or result from converging decisions by two or more entities, where the decisions complement each other and are necessary for the processing to take place in such a manner that they have a tangible impact on the determination of the purposes and means of the processing. An important criterion is that the processing would not be possible without both parties’ participation in the sense that the processing by each party is inseparable, i.e. inextricably linked. The joint participation needs to include the determination of purposes on the one hand and the determination of means on the other hand.
A processor is a natural or legal person, public authority, agency or another body, which processes personal data on behalf of the controller. Two basic conditions for qualifying as processor exist: that it is a separate entity in relation to the controller and that it processes personal data on the controller’s behalf.
The processor must not process the data otherwise than according to the controller’s instructions. The controller’s instructions may still leave a certain degree of discretion about how to best serve the controller’s interests, allowing the processor to choose the most suitable technical and organisational means. A processor infringes the GDPR, however, if it goes beyond the controller’s instructions and starts to determine its own purposes and means of the processing. The processor will then be considered a controller in respect of that processing and may be subject to sanctions for going beyond the controller’s instructions.
Relationship between controller and processor
A controller must only use processors providing sufficient guarantees to implement appropriate technical and organisational measures so that the processing meets the requirements of the GDPR. Elements to be taken into account could be the processor’s expert knowledge (e.g. technical expertise with regard to security measures and data breaches); the processor’s reliability; the processor’s resources and the processor’s adherence to an approved code of conduct or certification mechanism.
Any processing of personal data by a processor must be governed by a contract or other legal act which shall be in writing, including in electronic form, and be binding. The controller and the processor may choose to negotiate their own contract including all the compulsory elements or to rely, in whole or in part, on standard contractual clauses.
The GDPR lists the elements that have to be set out in the processing agreement. The processing agreement should not, however, merely restate the provisions of the GDPR; rather, it should include more specific, concrete information as to how the requirements will be met and which level of security is required for the personal data processing that is the object of the processing agreement.
Relationship among joint controllers
Joint controllers shall in a transparent manner determine and agree on their respective responsibilities for compliance with the obligations under the GDPR. The determination of their respective responsibilities must in particular regard the exercise of data subjects’ rights and the duties to provide information. In addition to this, the distribution of responsibilities should cover other controller obligations such as regarding the general data protection principles, legal basis, security measures, data breach notification obligation, data protection impact assessments, the use of processors, third country transfers and contacts with data subjects and supervisory authorities.
Each joint controller has the duty to ensure that they have a legal basis for the processing and that the data are not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with the purposes for which they were originally collected by the controller sharing the data.
The legal form of the arrangement among joint controllers is not specified by the GDPR. For the sake of legal certainty, and in order to provide for transparency and accountability, the EDPB recommends that such arrangement be made in the form of a binding document such as a contract or other legal binding act under EU or Member State law to which the controllers are subject.
The arrangement shall duly reflect the respective roles and relationships of the joint controllers vis-à-vis the data subjects and the essence of the arrangement shall be made available to the data subject.
Irrespective of the terms of the arrangement, data subjects may exercise their rights in respect of and against each of the joint controllers. Supervisory authorities are not bound by the terms of the arrangement whether on the issue of the qualification of the parties as joint controllers or the designated contact point.
The European Data Protection Board
Having regard to Article 70 (1e) of the Regulation 2016/679/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC, (hereinafter “GDPR” or “the Regulation”),
Having regard to the EEA Agreement and in particular to Annex XI and Protocol 37 thereof, as amended by the Decision of the EEA joint Committee No 154/2018 of 6 July 20181,
Having regard to Article 12 and Article 22 of its Rules of Procedure,
Whereas the preparatory work of these guidelines involved the collection of inputs from stakeholders, both in writing and at a stakeholder event, in order to identify the most pressing challenges;
HAS ADOPTED THE FOLLOWING GUIDELINES
1. This document seeks to provide guidance on the concepts of controller and processor based on the GDPR’s rules on definitions in Article 4 and the provisions on obligations in chapter IV. The main aim is to clarify the meaning of the concepts and to clarify the different roles and the distribution of responsibilities between these actors.
2. The concept of controller and its interaction with the concept of processor play a crucial role in the application of the GDPR, since they determine who shall be responsible for compliance with different data protection rules, and how data subjects can exercise their rights in practice. The GDPR explicitly introduces the accountability principle, i.e. the controller shall be responsible for, and be able to demonstrate compliance with, the principles relating to processing of personal data in Article 5. Moreover, the GDPR also introduces more specific rules on the use of processor(s) and some of the provisions on personal data processing are addressed – not only to controllers – but also to processors.
3. It is therefore of paramount importance that the precise meaning of these concepts and the criteria for their correct use are sufficiently clear and shared throughout the European Union and the EEA.
4. The Article 29 Working Party issued guidance on the concepts of controller/processor in its opinion 1/2010 (WP169)2 in order to provide clarifications and concrete examples with respect to these concepts. Since the entry into force of the GDPR, many questions have been raised regarding to what extent the GDPR brought changes to the concepts of controller and processor and their respective roles. Questions were raised in particular to the substance and implications of the concept of joint controllership (e.g. as laid down in Article 26 GDPR) and to the specific obligations for processors laid down in Chapter IV (e.g. as laid down in Article 28 GDPR). Therefore, and as the EDPB recognizes that the concrete application of the concepts needs further clarification, the EDPB now deems it necessary to give more developed and specific guidance in order to ensure a consistent and harmonised approach throughout the EU and the EEA. The present guidelines replace the previous opinion of Working Party 29 on these concepts (WP169).
5. In part I, these guidelines discuss the definitions of the different concepts of controller, joint controllers, processor and third party/recipient. In part II, further guidance is provided on the consequences that are attached to the different roles of controller, joint controllers and processor.
PART I – CONCEPTS
1 GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
This principle has been described in an opinion by the Article 29 WP 3 and will not be discussed in detail here.
7. The aim of incorporating the accountability principle into the GDPR and making it a central principle was to emphasize that data controllers must implement appropriate and effective measures and be able to demonstrate compliance. 4
8. The accountability principle has been further elaborated in Article 24, which states that the controller shall implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure and to be able to demonstrate that processing is performed in accordance with the GDPR. Such measures shall be reviewed and updated if necessary. The accountability principle is also reflected in Article 28, which lays down the controller’s obligations when engaging a processor.
9. The accountability principle is directly addressed to the controller. However, some of the more specific rules are addressed to both controllers and processors, such as the rules on supervisory authorities’ powers in Article 58. Both controllers and processors can be fined in case of non-compliance with the obligations of the GDPR that are relevant to them and both are directly accountable towards supervisory authorities by virtue of the obligations to maintain and provide appropriate documentation upon request, co-operate in case of an investigation and abide by administrative orders. At the same time, it should be recalled that processors must always comply with, and act only on, instructions from the controller.
10. The accountability principle, together with the other, more specific rules on how to comply with the GDPR and the distribution of responsibility, therefore makes it necessary to define the different roles of several actors involved in a personal data processing activity.
11. A general observation regarding the concepts of controller and processor in the GDPR is that they have not changed compared to the Directive 95/46/EC and that overall, the criteria for how to attribute the different roles remain the same.
12. The concepts of controller and processor are functional concepts: they aim to allocate responsibilities according to the actual roles of the parties.5 This implies that the legal status of an actor as either a “controller” or a “processor” must in principle be determined by its actual activities in a specific situation, rather than upon the formal designation of an actor as being either a “controller” or “processor” (e.g. in a contract).6
13. The concepts of controller and processor are also autonomous concepts in the sense that, although external legal sources can help identifying who is a controller, it should be interpreted mainly according to EU data protection law. The concept of controller should not be prejudiced by other – sometimes colliding or overlapping – concepts in other fields of law, such as the creator or the right holder in intellectual property rights or competition law.
14. As the underlying objective of attributing the role of controller is to ensure accountability and the effective and comprehensive protection of the personal data, the concept of ‘controller’ should be interpreted in a sufficiently broad way so as to ensure full effect of EU data protection law, to avoid lacunae and to prevent possible circumvention of the rules.
2 DEFINITION OF CONTROLLER
2.1 Definition of controller
“the natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body which, alone or jointly with others, determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data; where the purposes and means of such processing are determined by Union or Member State law, the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination may be provided for by Union or Member State law”.
16. The definition of controller contains five main building blocks, which will be analysed separately for the purposes of these Guidelines. They are the following:
— “the natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body”
— “alone or jointly with others”
— “the purposes and means”
2.1.1 “Natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body”
17. The first building block relates to the type of entity that can be a controller. Under the GDPR, a controller can be “a natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body”. This means that, in principle, there is no limitation as to the type of entity that may assume the role of a controller. It might be an organisation, but it might also be an individual or a group of individuals.7 In practice, however, it is usually the organisation as such, and not an individual within the organisation (such as the CEO, an employee or a member of the board), that acts as a controller within the meaning of the GDPR. As far as data processing within a company group is concerned, special attention must be paid to the question of whether an establishment acts as a controller or processor, e.g. when processing data on behalf of the parent company.
18. Sometimes, companies and public bodies appoint a specific person responsible for the implementation of the processing operations. Even if a specific natural person is appointed to ensure compliance with data protection rules, this person will not be the controller but will act on behalf of the legal entity (company or public body) which will be ultimately responsible in case of infringement of the rules in its capacity as controller.
19. The second building block of the controller concept refers to the controller’s influence over the processing, by virtue of an exercise of decision-making power. A controller is a body that decides certain key elements about the processing. This controllership may be defined by law or may stem from an analysis of the factual elements or circumstances of the case. One should look at the specific processing operations in question and understand who determines them, by first considering the following questions: “why is this processing taking place?” and “who decided that the processing should take place for a particular purpose?”.
Circumstances giving rise to control
20. Having said that the concept of controller is a functional concept, it is therefore based on a factual rather than a formal analysis. In order to facilitate the analysis, certain rules of thumb and practical presumptions may be used to guide and simplify the process. In most situations, the “determining body” can be easily and clearly identified by reference to certain legal and/or factual circumstances from which “influence” normally can be inferred, unless other elements indicate the contrary. Two categories of situations can be distinguished: (1) control stemming from legal provisions; and (2) control stemming from factual influence.
1) Control stemming from legal provisions
21. There are cases where control can be inferred from explicit legal competence e.g., when the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination are designated by national or Union law. Indeed, Article 4(7) states that “where the purposes and means of such processing are determined by Union or Member State law, the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination may be provided for by Union or Member State law.” Where the controller has been specifically identified by law this will be determinative for establishing who is acting as controller. This presupposes that the legislator has designated as controller the entity that has a genuine ability to exercise control. In some countries, the national law provides that public authorities are responsible for processing of personal data within the context of their duties.
22. However, more commonly, rather than directly appointing the controller or setting out the criteria for its appointment, the law will establish a task or impose a duty on someone to collect and process certain data. In those cases, the purpose of the processing is often determined by the law. The controller will normally be the one designated by law for the realization of this purpose, this public task. For example, this would be the case where an entity which is entrusted with certain public tasks (e.g., social security) which cannot be fulfilled without collecting at least some personal data, sets up a database or register in order to fulfil those public tasks. In that case, the law, albeit indirectly, sets out who is the controller. More generally, the law may also impose an obligation on either public or private entities to retain or provide certain data. These entities would then normally be considered as controllers with respect to the processing that is necessary to execute this obligation.
Example: Legal provisions – The national law in Country A lays down an obligation for municipal authorities to provide social welfare benefits such as monthly payments to citizens depending on their financial situation. In order to carry out these payments, the municipal authority must collect and process data about the applicants’ financial circumstances. Even though the law does not explicitly state that the municipal authorities are controllers for this processing, this follows implicitly from the legal provisions.
2) Control stemming from factual influence
23. In the absence of control arising from legal provisions, the qualification of a party as controller must be established on the basis of an assessment of the factual circumstances surrounding the processing. All relevant factual circumstances must be taken into account in order to reach a conclusion as to whether a particular entity exercises a determinative influence with respect to the processing of personal data in question.
24. The need for factual assessment also means that the role of a controller does not stem from the nature of an entity that is processing data but from its concrete activities in a specific context. In other words, the same entity may act at the same time as controller for certain processing operations and as processor for others, and the qualification as controller or processor has to be assessed with regard to each specific data processing activity.
25. In practice, certain processing activities can be considered as naturally attached to the role or activities of an entity ultimately entailing responsibilities from a data protection point of view. This can be due to more general legal provisions or an established legal practice in different areas (civil law, commercial law, labour law etc.). In this case, existing traditional roles and professional expertise that normally imply a certain responsibility will help in identifying the controller, for example an employer in relation to processing personal data about his employees, a publisher processing personal data about its subscribers, or an association processing personal data about its members or contributors. When an entity engages in processing of personal data as part of its interactions with its own employees, customers or members, it will generally be the one who factually can determine the purpose and means around the processing and is therefore acting as a controller within the meaning of the GDPR.
Example: Law firms – The company ABC hires a law firm to represent it in a dispute. In order to carry out this task, the law firm needs to process personal data related to the case. The reasons for processing the personal data is the law firm’s mandate to represent the client in court. This mandate however is not specifically targeted to personal data processing. The law firm acts with a significant degree of independence, for example in deciding what information to use and how to use it, and there are no instructions from the client company regarding the personal data processing. The processing that the law firm carries out in order to fulfil the task as legal representative for the company is therefore linked to the functional role of the law firm so that it is to be regarded as controller for this processing.
26. In many cases, an assessment of the contractual terms between the different parties involved can facilitate the determination of which party (or parties) is acting as controller. Even if a contract is silent as to who is the controller, it may contain sufficient elements to infer who exercises a decision-making role with respect to the purposes and means of the processing. It may also be that the contract contains an explicit statement as to the identity of the controller. If there is no reason to doubt that this accurately reflects the reality, there is nothing against following the terms of the contract. However, the terms of a contract are not decisive in all circumstances, as this would simply allow parties to allocate responsibility as they see fit. It is not possible either to become a controller or to escape controller obligations simply by shaping the contract in a certain way where the factual circumstances say something else.
27. If one party in fact decides why and how personal data are processed that party will be a controller even if a contract says that it is a processor. Similarly, it is not because a commercial contract uses the term “subcontractor” that an entity shall be considered a processor from the perspective of data protection law.8
28. In line with the factual approach, the word “determines” means that the entity that actually exerts influence on the purposes and means of the processing is the controller. Normally, a processor agreement establishes who the determining party (controller) and the instructed party (processor) are. Even if the processor offers a service that is preliminary defined in a specific way, the controller has to be presented with a detailed description of the service and must make the final decision to actively approve the way the processing is carried out and to be able to request changes if necessary. Furthermore, the processor cannot at a later stage change the essential elements of the processing without the approval of the controller.
2.1.3 “Alone or jointly with others”
29. Article 4(7) recognizes that the “purposes and means” of the processing might be determined by more than one actor. It states that the controller is the actor who “alone or jointly with others” determines the purposes and means of the processing. This means that several different entities may act as controllers for the same processing, with each of them then being subject to the applicable data protection provisions. Correspondingly, an organisation can still be a controller even if it does not make all the decisions as to purposes and means. The criteria for joint controllership and the extent to which two or more actors jointly exercise control may take different forms, as clarified later on.9
2.1.4 “Purposes and means”
30. The fourth building block of the controller definition refers to the object of the controller’s influence, namely the “purposes and means” of the processing. It represents the substantive part of the controller concept: what a party should determine in order to qualify as controller.
31. Dictionaries define “purpose” as “an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions” and “means” as “how a result is obtained or an end is achieved”.
32. The GDPR establishes that data must be collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a way incompatible with those purposes. Determination of the “purposes” of the processing and the “means” to achieve them is therefore particularly important.
33. Determining the purposes and the means amounts to deciding respectively the “why” and the “how” of the processing:10 given a particular processing operation, the controller is the actor who has determined why the processing is taking place (i.e., “to what end”; or “what for”) and how this objective shall be reached (i.e. which means shall be employed to attain the objective). A natural or legal person who exerts such influence over the processing of personal data, thereby participates in the determination of the purposes and means of that processing in accordance with the definition in Article 4(7) GDPR.11
34. The controller must decide on both purpose and means of the processing as described below. As a result, the controller cannot settle with only determining the purpose. It must also make decisions about the means of the processing. Conversely, the party acting as processor can never determine the purpose of the processing.
35. In practice, if a controller engages a processor to carry out the processing on its behalf, it often means that the processor shall be able to make certain decisions of its own on how to carry out the processing. The EDPB recognizes that some margin of manoeuvre may exist for the processor also to be able to make some decisions in relation to the processing. In this perspective, there is a need to provide guidance about which level of influence on the “why” and the “how” should entail the qualification of an entity as a controller and to what extent a processor may make decisions of its own.
36. When one entity clearly determines purposes and means, entrusting another entity with processing activities that amount to the execution of its detailed instructions, the situation is straightforward, and there is no doubt that the second entity should be regarded as a processor, whereas the first entity is the controller.
Essential vs. non-essential means
37. The question is where to draw the line between decisions that are reserved to the controller and decisions that can be left to the discretion of the processor. Decisions on the purpose of the processing are clearly always for the controller to make.
38. As regards the determination of means, a distinction can be made between essential and non-essential means. “Essential means” are closely linked to the purpose and the scope of the processing and are traditionally and inherently reserved to the controller. Examples of essential means are the type of personal data which are processed (“which data shall be processed?”), the duration of the processing (“for how long shall they be processed?”), the categories of recipients (“who shall have access to them?”) and the categories of data subjects (“whose personal data are being processed?”). “Nonessential means” concern more practical aspects of implementation, such as the choice for a particular type of hard- or software or the detailed security measures which may be left to the processor to decide on.
Example: Payroll administration – Employer A hires another company to administer the payment of salaries to its employees. Employer A gives clear instructions on who to pay, what amounts, by what date, by which bank, how long the data shall be stored, what data should be disclosed to the tax authority etc. In this case, the processing of data is carried out for Company A’s purpose to pay salaries to its employees and the payroll administrator may not use the data for any purpose of its own. The way in which the payroll administrator should carry out the processing is in essence clearly and tightly defined. Nevertheless, the payroll administrator may decide on certain detailed matters around the processing such as which software to use, how to distribute access within its own organisation etc. This does not alter its role as processor as long as the administrator does not go against or beyond the instructions given by Company A.
Example: Bank payments – As part of the instructions from Employer A, the payroll administration transmits information to Bank B so that they can carry out the actual payment to the employees of Employer A. This activity includes processing of personal data by Bank B which it carries out for the purpose of performing banking activity. Within this activity, the bank decides independently from Employer A on which data that have to be processed to provide the service, for how long the data must be stored etc. Employer A cannot have any influence on the purpose and means of Bank B’s processing of data. Bank B is therefore to be seen as a controller for this processing and the transmission of personal data from the payroll administration is to be regarded as a disclosure of information between two controllers, from Employer A to Bank B.
Example: Accountants – Employer A also hires Accounting firm C to carry out audits of their bookkeeping and therefore transfers data about financial transactions (including personal data) to C. Accounting firm C processes these data without detailed instructions from A. Accounting firm C decides itself, in accordance with legal provisions regulating the tasks of the auditing activities carried out by C, that the data it collects will only be processed for the purpose of auditing A and it determines what data it needs to have, which categories of persons that need to be registered, how long the data shall be kept and what technical means to use. Under these circumstances, Accounting firm C is to be regarded as a controller of its own when performing its auditing services for A. However, this assessment may be different depending on the level of instructions from A. In a situation where the law does not lay down specific obligations for the accounting firm and the client company provides very detailed instructions on the processing, the accounting firm would indeed be acting as a processor. A distinction could be made between a situation where the processing is – in accordance with the laws regulating this profession – done as part of the accounting firm’s core activity and where the processing is a more limited, ancillary task that is carried out as part of the client company’s activity.
Example: Hosting services – Employer A hires hosting service H to store encrypted data on H’s servers. The hosting service H does not determine whether the data it hosts are personal data nor does it process data in any other way than storing it on its servers. As storage is one example of a personal data processing activity, the hosting service H is processing personal data on employer A’s behalf and is therefore a processor. Employer A must provide the necessary instructions to H on, for example, which technical and organisational security measures are required and a data processing agreement according to Article 28 must be concluded. H must assist A in ensuring that the necessary security measures are taken and notify it in case of any personal data breach.
39. Even though decisions on non-essential means can be left to the processor, the controller must still stipulate certain elements in the processor agreement, such as – in relation to the security requirement, e.g. an instruction to take all measures required pursuant to Article 32 of the GDPR. The agreement must also state that the processor shall assist the controller in ensuring compliance with, for example, Article 32. In any event, the controller remains responsible for the implementation of appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure and be able to demonstrate that the processing is performed in accordance with the Regulation (Article 24). In doing so, the controller must take into account the nature, scope, context and purposes of the processing as well as the risks for rights and freedoms of natural persons. For this reason, the controller must be fully informed about the means that are used so that it can take an informed decision in this regard. In order for the controller to be able to demonstrate the lawfulness of the processing, it is advisable to document at the minimum necessary technical and organisational measures in the contract or other legally binding instrument between the controller and the processor.
2.1.5 “Of the processing of personal data”
40. The purposes and means determined by the controller must relate to the “processing of personal data”. Article 4(2) GDPR defines the processing of personal data as “any operation or set of operations which is performed on personal data or on sets of personal data”. As a result, the concept of a controller can be linked either to a single processing operation or to a set of operations. In practice, this may mean that the control exercised by a particular entity may extend to the entirety of processing at issue but may also be limited to a particular stage in the processing.12
41. Anyone who decides to process data must consider whether this includes personal data and, if so, what the obligations are according to the GDPR. An actor will be considered a “controller” even if it does not deliberately target personal data as such or has wrongfully assessed that it does not process personal data.
42. It is not necessary that the controller actually has access to the data that is being processed13. Someone who outsources a processing activity and in doing so, has a determinative influence on the purpose and (essential) means of the processing (e.g. by adjusting parameters of a service in such a way that it influences whose personal data shall be processed), is to be regarded as controller even though he or she will never have actual access to the data.
Example: Market research Company ABC wishes to understand which types of consumers are most likely to be interested in its products and contracts a service provider, XYZ, to obtain the relevant information.
Company ABC instructs XYZ on what type of information it is interested in and provides a list of questions to be asked to those participating in the market research.
Company ABC receives only statistical information (e.g., identifying consumer trends per region) from XYZ and does not have access to the personal data itself. Nevertheless, Company ABC decided that the processing should take place, the processing is carried out for its purpose and its activity and it has provided XYZ with detailed instructions on what information to collect. Company ABC is therefore still to be considered a controller with respect of the processing of personal data that takes place in order to deliver the information it has requested. XYZ may only process the data for the purpose given by Company ABC and according to its detailed instructions and is therefore to be regarded as processor.
3 DEFINITION OF JOINT CONTROLLERS
3.1 Definition of joint controllers
44. While the concept is not new and already existed under Directive 95/46/EC, the GDPR, in its Article 26, introduces specific rules for joint controllers and sets a framework to govern their relationship. In addition, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in recent rulings has brought clarifications on this concept and its implications14.
45. As further elaborated in Part II, section 2, the qualification of joint controllers will mainly have consequences in terms of allocation of obligations for compliance with data protection rules and in particular with respect to the rights of individuals.
46. In this perspective, the following section aims to provide guidance on the concept of joint controllers in accordance with the GDPR and the CJEU case law to assist entities in determining where they may be acting as joint controllers and applying the concept in practice.
3.2 Existence of joint controllership
3.2.1 General considerations
47. The definition of a controller in Article 4 (7) GDPR forms the starting point for determining joint controllership. The considerations in this section are thus directly related to and supplement the considerations in the section on the concept of controller. As a consequence, the assessment of joint controllership should mirror the assessment of “single” control developed above.
48. Article 26 GDPR, which reflects the definition in Article 4 (7) GDPR, provides that “[w]here two or more controllers jointly determine the purposes and means of processing, they shall be joint controllers.” In broad terms, joint controllership exists with regard to a specific processing activity when different parties determine jointly the purpose and means of this processing activity. Therefore, assessing the existence of joint controllers requires examining whether the determination of purposes and means that characterize a controller are decided by more than one party. “Jointly” must be interpreted as meaning “together with” or “not alone”, in different forms and combinations, as explained below.
49. The assessment of joint controllership should be carried out on a factual, rather than a formal, analysis of the actual influence on the purposes and means of the processing. All existing or envisaged arrangements should be checked against the factual circumstances regarding the relationship between the parties. A merely formal criterion would not be sufficient for at least two reasons: in some cases, the formal appointment of a joint controller – laid down for example by law or in a contract – would be absent; in other cases, it may be that the formal appointment does not reflect the reality of the arrangements, by formally entrusting the role of controller to an entity which actually is not in the position to “determine” the purposes and means of the processing.
50. Not all processing operations involving several entities give rise to joint controllership. The overarching criterion for joint controllership to exist is the joint participation of two or more entities in the determination of the purposes and means of a processing operation. More specifically, joint participation needs to include the determination of purposes on the one hand and the determination of means on the other hand. If each of these elements are determined by all entities concerned, they should be considered as joint controllers of the processing at issue.
3.2.2 Assessment of joint participation
51. Joint participation in the determination of purposes and means implies that more than one entity have a decisive influence over whether and how the processing takes place. In practice, joint participation can take several different forms. For example, joint participation can take the form of a common decision taken by two or more entities or result from converging decisions by two or more entities regarding the purposes and essential means.
52. Joint participation through a common decision means deciding together and involves a common intention in accordance with the most common understanding of the term “jointly” referred to in Article 26 of the GDPR.
53. The situation of joint participation through converging decisions results more particularly from the case law of the CJEU on the concept of joint controllers. Decisions can be considered as converging on purposes and means if they complement each other and are necessary for the processing to take place in such manner that they have a tangible impact on the determination of the purposes and means of the processing. As such, an important criterion to identify converging decisions in this context is whether the processing would not be possible without both parties’ participation in the sense that the processing by each party is inseparable, i.e. inextricably linked. The situation of joint controllers acting on the basis of converging decisions should however be distinguished from the case of a processor, since the latter – while participating in the performance of a processing – does not process the data for its own purposes but carries out the processing on behalf of the controller.
54. The fact that one of the parties does not have access to personal data processed is not sufficient to exclude joint controllership 15 . For example, in Jehovah’s Witnesses, the CJEU considered that a religious community must be considered a controller, jointly with its members who engage in preaching, of the processing of personal data carried out by the latter in the context of door-to-door preaching.16 The CJEU considered that it was not necessary that the community had access to the data in question, or to establish that that community had given its members written guidelines or instructions in relation to the data processing.17 The community participated in the determination of purposes and means by organising and coordinating the activities of its members, which helped to achieve the objective of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community.18 In addition, the community had knowledge on a general level of the fact that such processing was carried out in order to spread its faith.19
55. It is also important to underline, as clarified by the CJEU, that an entity will be considered as joint controller with the other(s) only in respect of those operations for which it determines, jointly with others, the means and the purposes of the processing. If one of these entities decides alone the purposes and means of operations that precede or are subsequent in the chain of processing, this entity must be considered as the sole controller of this preceding or subsequent operation20.
56. The existence of joint responsibility does not necessarily imply equal responsibility of the various operators involved in the processing of personal data. On the contrary, the CJEU has clarified that those operators may be involved at different stages of that processing and to different degrees so that the level of responsibility of each of them must be assessed with regard to all the relevant circumstances of the particular case.
184.108.40.206 Jointly determined purpose(s)
57. Joint controllership exists when entities involved in the same processing operation process such data for jointly defined purposes. This will be the case if the entities involved process the data for the same, or common, purposes.
58. In addition, when the entities do not have the same purpose for the processing, joint controllership may also, in light of the CJEU case law, be established when the entities involved pursue purposes which are closely linked or complementary. Such may be the case, for example, when there is a mutual benefit arising from the same processing operation, provided that each of the entities involved participates in the determination of the purposes and means of the relevant processing operation. In Fashion ID, for example, the CJEU clarified that a website operator participates in the determination of the purposes (and means) of the processing by embedding a social plug-in on a website in order to optimize the publicity of its goods by making them more visible on the social network. The CJEU considered that the processing operations at issue were performed in the economic interests of both the website operator and the provider of the social plug-in.21
59. Likewise, as noted by the CJEU in Wirtschaftsakademie, the processing of personal data through statistics of visitors to a fan page is intended to enable Facebook to improve its system of advertising transmitted via its network and to enable the administrator of the fan page to obtain statistics to manage the promotion of its activity.22 Each entity in this case pursues its own interest but both parties participate in the determination of the purposes (and means) of the processing of personal data as regards the visitors to the fan page.23
60. In this respect, it is important to highlight that the mere existence of a mutual benefit (for ex. commercial) arising from a processing activity does not give rise to joint controllership. If the entity involved in the processing does not pursue any purpose(s) of its own in relation to the processing activity, but is merely being paid for services rendered, it is acting as a processor rather than as a joint controller.
220.127.116.11 Jointly determined means
61. Joint controllership also requires that two or more entities have exerted influence over the means of the processing. This does not mean that, for joint controllership to exist, each entity involved needs in all cases to determine all of the means. Indeed, as clarified by the CJEU, different entities may be involved at different stages of that processing and to different degrees. Different joint controllers may therefore define the means of the processing to a different extent, depending on who is effectively in a position to do so.
62. It may also be the case that one of the entities involved provides the means of the processing and makes it available for personal data processing activities by other entities. The entity who decides to make use of those means so that personal data can be processed for a particular purpose also participates in the determination of the means of the processing.
63. This scenario can notably arise in case of platforms, standardised tools, or other infrastructure allowing the parties to process the same personal data and which have been set up in a certain way by one of the parties to be used by others that can also decide how to set it up24. The use of an already existing technical system does not exclude joint controllership when users of the system can decide on the processing of personal data to be performed in this context.
64. As an example of this, the CJEU held in Wirtschaftsakademie that the administrator of a fan page hosted on Facebook, by defining parameters based on its target audience and the objectives of managing and promoting its activities, must be regarded as taking part in the determination of the means of the processing of personal data related to the visitors of its fan page.
65. Furthermore, the choice made by an entity to use for its own purposes a tool or other system developed by another entity, allowing the processing of personal data, will likely amount to a joint decision on the means of that processing by those entities. This follows from the Fashion ID case where the CJEU concluded, that by embedding on its website the Facebook Like button made available by Facebook to website operators, Fashion ID has exerted a decisive influence in respect of the operations involving the collection and transmission of the personal data of the visitors of its website to Facebook and had thus jointly determined with Facebook the means of that processing25.
66. It is important to underline that the use of a common data processing system or infrastructure will not in all cases lead to qualify the parties involved as joint controllers, in particular where the processing they carry out is separable and could be performed by one party without intervention from the other or where the provider is a processor in the absence of any purpose of its own (the existence of a mere commercial benefit for the parties involved is not sufficient to qualify as a purpose of processing).
Example: Travel agency – A travel agency sends personal data of its customers to the airline and a chain of hotels, with a view to making reservations for a travel package. The airline and the hotel confirm the availability of the seats and rooms requested. The travel agency issues the travel documents and vouchers for its customers. Each of the actors processes the data for carrying out their own activities and using their own means. In this case, the travel agency, the airline and the hotel are three different data controllers processing the data for their own purposes and there is no joint controllership.
The travel agency, the hotel chain and the airline then decide to participate jointly in setting up an internet-based common platform for the common purpose of providing package travel deals. They agree on the essential means to be used, such as which data will be stored, how reservations will be allocated and confirmed, and who can have access to the information stored. Furthermore, they decide to share the data of their customers in order to carry out joint marketing actions. In this case, the travel agency, the airline and the hotel chain, jointly determine why and how personal data of their respective customers are processed and will therefore be joint controllers with regard to the processing operations relating to the common internet-based booking platform and the joint marketing actions. However, each of them would still retain sole control with regard to other processing activities outside the internet-based common platform.
Example: Research project by institutes – Several research institutes decide to participate in a specific joint research project and to use to that end the existing platform of one of the institutes involved in the project. Each institute feeds personal data it holds into the platform for the purpose of the joint research and uses the data provided by others through the platform for carrying out the research. In this case, all institutes qualify as joint controllers for the personal data processing that is done by storing and disclosing information from this platform since they have decided together the purpose of the processing and the means to be used (the existing platform). Each of the institutes however is a separate controller for any other processing that may be carried out outside the platform for their respective purposes.
Example: Marketing operation – Companies A and B have launched a co-branded product C and wish to organise an event to promote this product. To that end, they decide to share data from their respective clients and prospects database and decide on the list of invitees to the event on this basis. They also agree on the modalities for sending the invitations to the event, how to collect feedback during the event and follow-up marketing actions. Companies A and B can be considered as joint controllers for the processing of personal data related to the organisation of the promotional event as they decide together on the jointly defined purpose and essential means of the data processing in this context.
Example: Clinical Trials – A health care provider (the investigator) and a university (the sponsor) decide to launch together a clinical trial with the same purpose. They collaborate together to the drafting of the study protocol (i.e. purpose, methodology/design of the study, data to be collected, subject exclusion/inclusion criteria, database reuse (where relevant) etc.). They may be considered as joint controllers, for this clinical trial as they jointly determine and agree on the same purpose and the essential means of the processing. The collection of personal data from the medical record of the patient for the purpose of research is to be distinguished from the storage and use of the same data for the purpose of patient care, for which the health care provider remains the controller.
In the event that the investigator does not participate to the drafting of the protocol (he just accepts the protocol already elaborated by the sponsor), and the protocol is only designed by the sponsor, the investigator should be considered as a processor and the sponsor as the controller for this clinical trial.
Example: Headhunters – Company X helps Company Y in recruiting new staff- with its famous value-added service “global matchz”. Company X looks for suitable candidates both among the CVs received directly by Company Y and those it already has in its own database. Such database is created and managed by Company X on its own. This ensures that Company X enhances the matching between job offers and job seekers, thus increasing its revenues. Even though they have not formally taken a decision together, Companies X and Y jointly participate to the processing with the purpose of finding suitable candidates based on converging decisions: the decision to create and manage the service “global matchz” for Company X and the decision of Company Y to enrich the database with the CVs it directly receives. Such decisions complement each other, are inseparable and necessary for the processing of finding suitable candidates to take place. Therefore, in this particular case they should be considered as joint controllers of such processing. However, Company X is the sole controller of the processing necessary to manage its database and Company Y is the sole controller of the subsequent hiring processing for its own purpose (organisation of interviews, conclusion of the contract and management of HR data).
3.2.3 Situations where there is no joint controllership
67. The fact that several actors are involved in the same processing does not mean that they are necessarily acting as joint controllers of such processing. Not all kind of partnerships, cooperation or collaboration imply qualification of joint controllers as such qualification requires a case-by-case analysis of each processing at stake and the precise role of each entity with respect to each processing. The cases below provide non-exhaustive examples of situations where there is no joint controllership.
68. For example, the exchange of the same data or set of data between two entities without jointly determined purposes or jointly determined means of processing should be considered as a transmission of data between separate controllers.
Example: Transmission of employee data to tax authorities – A company collects and processes personal data of its employees with the purpose of managing salaries, health insurances, etc. A law imposes an obligation on the company to send all data concerning salaries to the tax authorities, with a view to reinforce fiscal control.
In this case, even though both the company and the tax authorities process the same data concerning salaries, the lack of jointly determined purposes and means with regard to this data processing will result in qualifying the two entities as two separate data controllers.
69. Joint controllership may also be excluded in a situation where several entities use a shared database or a common infrastructure, if each entity independently determines its own purposes.
Example: Marketing operations in a group of companies using a shared database – A group of companies uses the same database for the management of clients and prospects. Such database is hosted on the servers of the mother company who is therefore a processor of the companies with respect to the storage of the data. Each entity of the group enters the data of its own clients and prospects and processes such data for its own purposes only. Also, each entity decides independently on the access, the retention periods, the correction or deletion of their clients and prospects’ data. They cannot access or use each other’s data. The mere fact that these companies use a shared group database does not as such entail joint controllership. Under these circumstances, each company is thus a separate controller.
Example: Independent controllers when using a shared infrastructure – Company XYZ hosts a database and makes it available to other companies to process and host personal data about their employees. Company XYZ is a processor in relation to the processing and storage of other companies’ employees as these operations are performed on behalf and according to the instructions of these other companies. In addition, the other companies process the data without any involvement from Company XYZ and for purposes which are not in any way shared by Company XYZ.
70. Also, there can be situations where various actors successively process the same personal data in a chain of operations, each of these actors having an independent purpose and independent means in their part of the chain. In the absence of joint participation in the determination of the purposes and means of the same processing operation or set of operations, joint controllership has to be excluded and the various actors must be regarded as successive independent controllers.
Example: Statistical analysis for a task of public interest – A public authority (Authority A) has the legal task of making relevant analysis and statistics on how the country’s employment rate develops. To do that, many other public entities are legally bound to disclose specific data to Authority A. Authority A decides to use a specific system to process the data, including collection. This also means that the other units are obligated to use the system for their disclosure of data. In this case, without prejudice to any attribution of roles by law, Authority A will be the only controller of the processing for the purpose of analysis and statistics of the employment rate processed in the system, because Authority A determines the purpose for the processing, and has decided how the processing will be organised. Of course, the other public entities, as controllers for their own processing activities, are responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the data they previously processed, which they then disclose to Authority A.
4 DEFINITION OF PROCESSOR
71. A processor is defined in Article 4 (8) as a natural or legal person, public authority, agency or another body, which processes personal data on behalf of the controller. Similar to the definition of controller, the definition of processor envisages a broad range of actors – it can be “a natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body”. This means that there is in principle no limitation as to which type of actor might assume the role of a processor. It might be an organisation, but it might also be an individual.
72. The GDPR lays down obligations directly applicable specifically to processors as further specified in Part II section 1 of these guidelines. A processor can be held liable or fined in case of failure to comply with such obligations or in case it acts outside or contrary to the lawful instructions of the controller.