The Intersection Between Data Protection and Competition Law: How to Incorporate Data Protection, as a Non-Economic Objective, into EU Competition Analysis

AuthorLouise O'Callaghan
PositionLLB and Scholar, Trinity College Dublin, LLM, Leiden University
© 2018 Louise O’Callaghan and Dublin University Law Society
The digital economy is marked by the exponential growth in the collection
of personal data which is analysed and exploited by businesses for
commercial purposes. While companies encourage the perception that
their online services are provided free of charge, in reality there is ‘no such
thing as a free search’.
Individuals who use online services are in fact
surrendering their personal data as an extremely valuable form of payment
to companies.
By the employment of a two-sided business model,
monetise personal data by exploiting indirect network effects. On the one
side they offer free services to attract as many users as possible and, on
the other side, they sell user data to advertisers. The more details a service
provider can collect about its users, the more precise information it can
sell to its advertisers. This benefits advertisers who can then better target
their advertising.
Therefore, it is no wonder that personal data has been
coined the ‘new currency’
for the digital economy. However, while
LLB and Scholar, Trinity College Dublin, LLM, Leiden University. The author would like to
thank Dr Ben Van Rompuy, Leiden University, and Nina Milosavljevic for their helpful
comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.
Alec J Burnside, ‘No Such Thing as a Free Search: Antitrust and the Pursuit of Privacy Goals’
(2015) CPI Antitrust Chronicle, May 2015, 2.
A two-sided business model is a platform which connects two distinct groups of users
seeking a mutual benefit, thus permitting both bodies of customers to obtain value from one
another Aleksandra Gebicka and Andreas Heinemann, ‘Social Media & Competition Law’
(2014) 37(2) World Competition 149, 154.
Inge Graef, ‘Market Definition and Market Power in Data: The Case of Online Platforms’
(2015) 38(4) World Competition 473, 473.
Commissioner Vestager, ‘Competition in a big data world’, 17 January 2016,
2019/vestager/announcements/competition-big-data-world_en> accessed 11 February 2018.
110 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
personal data is of economic value, it also encompasses intrinsic privacy
concerns for individuals.
While Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as saying that privacy is ‘no
longer a social norm,’
the ubiquitous nature of information sharing has
raised concerns over the acquisition and processing of personal data by
large companies. These concerns are bolstered by the existence of
significant information and power asymmetries between users and service
providers in that consumers are largely unaware of the information being
collected about them and how this information is subsequently being used.
In reaction to mounting concern, it has been suggested that the data
protection framework is inadequate to address the privacy concerns
arising in the digital market.
Although, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
seeks to
address the challenges of the evolving digital economy, it remains focused
on the notion of individual control. However, due to the concentrated
nature of online markets, the fostering of individual control is considered
to be inadequate to ensure the effectiveness of data protection, as
ultimately, consumers have little or no choice.
Thus, advocates contend
that in order to ensure the effectiveness of data protection in the digital
market a holistic approach should be adopted with competition
enforcement taking privacy considerations into account.
This article
focuses on this proposition for a holistic approach, as it is examined
whether there is a legal basis within the EU legal order by which data
protection concerns could be incorporated into competition policy.
I. Data Protection and Competition Law
The proposition that data protection concerns should be taken into
account in the application of competition law has not been unanimously
welcomed. On the one hand, those advocating for the incorporation of data
protection into competition law focus on the common objectives which
The Guardian, ‘Privacy is no longer a social norm, says Facebook founder’
accessed 11
February 2018.
Regulation (EU) 2016/679 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 [2016] OJ L119/1.
Bert-Jaap Koops, ‘The trouble with European data protection law’ (2014) 4(4) IDPL 250, 251.
European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Preliminary Opinion, Privacy and
competitiveness in the age of big data: The interplay between data protection, competition
law and consumer protection in the Digital Economy, March 2014.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 111
exist between the two fields in order to advance the opinion that the
policies should be applied in a holistic manner.
These common objectives
are identified as seeking to protect individuals and tackling power
asymmetries. Firstly, in relation to the protection of individuals, the ‘basic
assumption’ of competition law is that a competitive market enhances
consumer welfare. In terms of data protection, data subjects, also being
consumers, are the direct beneficiaries of the data protection framework.
Secondly, in relation to power asymmetries, competition law seeks to
protect consumers against undertakings’ market power while data
protection seeks to protect the individual within the data processing
These common objectives are highlighted in order to demonstrate
that data protection and competition law share the same underlying
normative concerns which therefore justifies integrated enforcement.
On the other hand, those against the incorporation of data protection
concerns into competition analysis predominantly address the issue from
the perspective of institutional choice.
From this perspective, it is
contended that competition law is focused on economic efficiency and if
used to remedy normative concerns about privacy, its specialised nature
would be contradicted and it would be at risk of being distorted.
adheres to the view that the role of competition law is maintaining an
environment within which products may compete, and not addressing
non-efficiency goals such as privacy concerns. In the same vein, it is
contended that the inclusion of privacy considerations into competition
analysis would open the floodgates for other fundamental rights or public
policy goals. In the words of Lamadrid and Villiers, this would have the
result of turning competition law into ‘a law of everything, which would
Francisco Costa-Cabral and Orla Lynskey, ‘Family Ties: The Intersections Between Data
Protection and Competition Law in EU Law’ (2017) 54 Common Market Law Review 11; Inge
Graef, ‘Blurring boundaries of consumer welfare, how to create synergies between
competition, consumer and data protection law in digital markets’ (2016)
accessed 11 February 2018;
EDPS (n 8).
Costa-Cabral and Lynskey (n 9), 21.
ibid 21.
See D Daniel Sokol and Roisin E Comerford, ‘Antitrust and Regulating Big Data’ (2016) 23
Geo Mason L Rev 1129; Maureen K Ohlhausen and Alexander P Okuliar, ‘Competition,
Consumer Protection, and the Right [Approach] to Privacy’ (2015) Antitrust L J 121; Alfonso
Lamadrid, ‘On Privacy, Big Data and Competition Law (2/2) On the nature, goals, means and
limitations of competition law’ (June 2014)
competition-law/> accessed 11 February 2018.
Ohlhausen and Okuliar (n 12), 152-153.
112 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
not only entirely deform the discipline but would also provide a great
starting point for a dystopian novel’.
However, if it is established that there is a legal basis for
incorporating data protection concerns into competition analysis, it is
disputed that any obligation conferred by such a legal basis could be
overridden by the fact that this might result in the incorporation of other
fundamental rights or public policy goals.
Moreover, any obligation established is not suggesting that the
Directorate General (‘DG’) Competition should pursue data protection
infringements as competition law infringements due to the mere fact of
there being either an agreement, an undertaking in a dominant position,
or a concentration. Any obligation to take data protection issues into
account is constrained by the principle of legality which prevents the
Commission from using its powers to consider data protection concerns in
the absence of a competition law infringement.
However, the proposition for such a holistic approach has not been
well received by either the Court of Justice (‘the Court’) in Luxembourg or
in the practice of the European Commission (‘the Commission’). In fact,
both EU case law and the Commission’s decisional practice abide by the
view that there is a strict delineation between the data protection and
competition frameworks and concerns regarding data protection are
excluded from the application of competition law.
In 2006, in Asnef-Equifax,
the Court established that ‘any possible
issues relating to the sensitivity of personal data are not, as such, a matter
for competition law, they may be resolved on the basis of the relevant
provisions governing data protection.’
This was affirmed by the
Commission in the Google/DoubleClick
and again in
when the Commission stated that ‘any privacy-
related concerns flowing from the increased concentration of data within
the control of Facebook as a result of the Transaction do not fall within the
scope of the EU competition law rules but within the scope of the EU data
protection rules.’
This was again reiterated in Microsoft/LinkedIn
Alfonso Lamadrid and Sam Villiers, ‘Big Data, Privacy and Competition Law: Do
Competition Authorities Know How To Do It?’ CPI Antitrust Chronicle, January 2017, 4.
Costra-Cabral and Lynskey (n 9) 48.
Case C-238/05, Asnef-Equifax, EU:C:2006:734.
ibid [63].
Case COMP/M.4731, Google/Double/Click (2008).
Case COMP/M.7217, Facebook/WhatsApp (2014).
ibid [164].
Case COMP/M.8124, Microsoft/LinkedIn (2016).
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 113
the Commission proceeded by discussing the competition issues raised by
the transaction ‘assuming such data combination is allowed under the
applicable data protection legislation.’
Notably, the Commission has acknowledged that consumers may see
privacy as a significant factor affecting the quality of goods and that
privacy may constitute a competitive lever where firms compete in
providing more or less privacy-friendly products and services.
it must be borne in mind that this is purely a theoretical scenario since, to
date, privacy has not emerged in practice as a parameter of competition.
Against this backdrop, this article examines whether there is a legal
basis according to which data protection, as a non-economic objective,
could be incorporated into competition law. By looking at the current legal
framework governing EU competition policy, three such gateways have
been identified: the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (‘the
the Charter of Fundamental Rights (‘the Charter’),
and Article
21(4) of Regulation No. 139/2004 (‘the EUMR’).
This article contends that within each of these gateways there is
scope to incorporate data protection concerns into competition analysis.
Firstly, it will be established that upon a holistic reading of the TFEU,
competition law cannot be taken as an isolated policy and therefore has to
take other EU objectives into consideration, including data protection
concerns. Secondly, it will be contended that as the right to data protection
is enshrined in the Charter, the Commission is obliged to respect that right.
Finally, it will be established that there is potential scope for data
protection to constitute a notifiable public interest under Article 21(4)
The EU competition provisions are found within the TFEU, as opposed to
being contained in competition-specific legislation. This holds particular
ibid [179].
Facebook/WhatsApp (n 19) [87]; Microsoft/LinkedIn (n 21) [330].
Autorité de la concurrence and Bundeskartellamt, Competition Law and Data’, 10 May
2016, 25
accessed 11 February 2018.
Consolidated Version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union [2016] OJ
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union [2016] OJ C202/389.
Regulation (EC) 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between
undertakings [2004] OJ L24/1.
114 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
importance as it means that the provisions are not aimed at isolated goals,
but form part of a web of inter-related Treaty articles.
Therefore, the
structure of the EU Treaties demands consideration of non-economic goals
in competition policy as, upon a holistic reading of the Treaty, it is
impossible to exclude such concerns.
In this regard, there are two
provisions within the TFEU by which data protection, as a non-economic
goal, could be integrated into competition analysis, namely Article 12 or
16 TFEU.
Article 12 TFEU provides that ‘[c]onsumer protection requirements
shall be taken into account in defining and implementing other Union
policies and activities.’ While Article 16 TFEU provides that ‘[e]veryone
has the right to the protection of personal data concerning them.’
Starting from the premise that the competition provisions cannot be
read in isolation, it will be examined whether either of the aforementioned
articles could be invoked as a legal basis for incorporating data protection
considerations into competition policy.
A. Article 12 TFEU
Article 12 TFEU is one of the numerous policy-linking clauses provided for
in the TFEU,
which require the EU institutions either to take into
account, or integrate, policy interests in other EU policies. Competition
law is not immune from this obligation, and the Commission and the Court
have recognised the impact of these policy-linking clauses. For example,
in Association belge, in which the Court considered the standing of a
consumer association to challenge a merger decision, the Court explicitly
noted the requirement to take consumer protection requirements into
account when implementing competition policy in accordance with
Article 12 TFEU.
Parallels can be drawn between consumer protection and data
protection. Firstly, in relation to their common aim of advancing consumer
welfare, consumer protection aims to empower consumers and protect
Townley, Article 81 EC and Public Policy (Hart Publishing 2009), 48.
ibid 50; for contrary view see Okeoghene Odudu ‘The Wider Concerns of Competition
Law’ (2010) 30(3) Oxf J Leg Stud 599.
See environmental protection (Article 11 TFEU), equality between men and women (Article
8 TFEU), discrimination (Article 10 TFEU), consumer protection (Article 12 TFEU), animal
welfare (Article 13 TFEU), employment, social protection, and exclusion (Articles 9 and 147(2)
TFEU), culture (Article 167(4) TFEU), public health (Article 168(1) TFEU), industrial policy
(Article 173(3) TFEU), regional policy (Article 175 TFEU) and development cooperation
(Article 208(1) TFEU).
Case T-224/10, Association belge des consommateurs test-achats ASBL, EU:T:2011:588, [43].
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 115
their interests. Similarly, as already recognised, data protection enhances
consumer welfare as data subjects, also being consumers, are the direct
beneficiaries of the data protection framework. Secondly, the notion of
fairness is common to both.
Fairness is one of the most fundamental
criteria for lawful trading practices in consumer law and, in Article 5(1)(a)
of the GDPR, fairness is established as a core principle of data processing.
i. Scope of Consumer Protection
The consumer interests protected by Article 12 TFEU are those that fall
within the scope of the stipulated interests in Article 169 TFEU.
169 TFEU defines the specific objectives of consumer protection as the
protection of health, safety and the economic interests of consumers and
the promotion of the right to consumer information, education and the
formation of consumer interest groups.
While the TFEU does not contain any explicit definition of the term
‘consumer’, the notion has been defined as a natural person acting on the
market for his or her personal, private but not commercial purpose.
‘data subject’ is a natural person identified or identifiable by personal
As already noted, the use of online services is not free, rather
individuals surrender their personal data in exchange for such services,
with the result that their personal data is conferred an economic value.
Article 169(1) TFEU encompasses protection for consumers’ economic
interests. Therefore, if a data subject is also a consumer, and it is the
personal data that carries the economic value, then privacy concerns,
which are an intrinsic element of personal data, could fall within the scope
of ‘economic interests’ protected under Article 169(1) TFEU.
ii. Duty to Take Consumer Protection Requirements into Account
If accepting that data protection and privacy concerns fall within the scope
of consumer protection and thus within Article 12 TFEU, it is necessary to
consider the impact of the duty to take consumer protection requirements
into account on competition analysis. What weight do consumer
protection requirements demand in practice? Does Article 12 TFEU impose
European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Opinion 8/2016, EDPS Opinion on coherent
enforcement of fundamental rights in the age of big data, September 2016, 8.
Geiger, Khan, and Kotzur (eds), European Union Treaties - A Commentary (Hart 2015) 224.
Article 169 TFEU.
Geiger, Khan, and Kotzur (n 33), 223-224.
Article 4(1) GDPR.
116 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
a limited obligation, which is easily satisfied by a superficial examination
of consumer protection requirements or does it require a more stringent
consideration of such matters?
While all of the policy-linking clauses demand some form of
integration, the exact wording of each is different with the result that, in
terms of legal force, some are more powerful than others. Article 12 TFEU
calls for consumer protection requirements to be taken into account. The
legal force attached to this duty is ambiguous. Weatherill is unconvinced
that Article 12 TFEU could prove to be an influential tool. In relation to its
legal force, it is commented that Article 12’s policy-framing character
makes it an inadequate basis for judicial review of the substance of
Moreover, it is submitted that the provision is deficient in both
legal precision and institutional specificity and leans more towards
political aspiration than constituting an independently enforceable legal
The only competition case in which Article 12 TFEU has been
explicitly referred to is Association belge. Unfortunately, the reliance on
Article 12 TFEU in the judgment offers little guidance on the strength of
the obligation. The Court merely referenced Article 12 TFEU to buttress
the argument that Article 11(c), second indent, of Regulation No.
concerning mergers, cannot be interpreted in restrictive
and did not consider the Article in substantive terms.
In terms of legal force, the case law concerning Article 167(4) TFEU
and cultural diversity is instructive as it provides for an identical
obligation to that found in Article 12 TFEU: ‘[t]he Union shall take cultural
aspects into account in its action under other provisions of this Treaty’. In
Stim v Commission,
the Court reviewed the Commission’s decision in
in which the Commission was faced with the claim that an
anticompetitive agreement should be exempted for reasons of cultural
protection. In CISAC, the Commission had explicitly carried out an
assessment of the case from the perspective of cultural diversity in
accordance with Article 167(4) TFEU and had concluded that the decision
did not harm cultural diversity.
The Court concluded that the applicants
Weatherill, EU Consumer Law and Policy (Edward Elgar Publishing 2013), 16.
ibid 72.
Regulation (EC) 802/2004 of 7 April 2004 implementing Council Regulation (EC) 139/2004
on the control of concentrations between undertakings [2004] OJ L133/1.
Association belge (n 31), [43].
Case T-451/08, Stim v Commission, EU:T:2013:189.
Case COMP/C2/38.698, CISAC (2008).
ibid [93-9].
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 117
had not demonstrated to the requisite legal standard that the Commission
had failed to take the protection of cultural diversity into account.
However, the Court did not enunciate what such a requisite legal standard
might require.
Unfortunately, neither Association belge in relation to Article 12
TFEU nor Stim in relation to Article 167(4) address the situation where
requirements of consumer protection/cultural diversity conflict with
competition concerns. Therefore, neither judgment offers any instruction
on how the two interests would be balanced. In this situation,
prioritisation is inevitable and it is doubtful that the obligation in Article
12 TFEU is sufficiently strong to enable consumer protection requirements
to trump competition considerations.
Ultimately, the obligation contained in Article 12 TFEU does not
appear to be particularly instrumental, with consensus being that the
obligation is merely formal, most likely amounting to a duty to state the
reasons, why and how, or why not, the interests of consumers were or
were not taken into account.
Therefore, while Article 12 TFEU does
provide a legal basis by which data protection concerns could be taken into
account, the strength of the obligation is ambiguous and thus undermines
its effectiveness.
B. Article 16 TFEU
The wording of Article 16 TFEU is undisputedly different from that of
Article 12 TFEU. Article 16 TFEU does not contain integrationist language,
but simply affirms that ‘everyone has the right to the protection of
personal data concerning them.’ Article 16 TFEU consists of an affirmation
of a right as opposed to a mandate to take data protection concerns into
account. Therefore, data protection concerns cannot be incorporated into
competition analysis by virtue of Article 16 TFEU alone.
However, it remains to be considered whether Article 16 TFEU, read in
conjunction with Article 7 TFEU, which mandates for consistency between
the EU’s policies and activities, could provide a legal basis for
consideration of data protection concerns within competition law.
Jules Stuyck, ‘European Consumer Law after the Treaty of Amsterdam: consumer policy
in or beyond the internal market’ (2000) 37(2) Common Mark Law Rev 367, 386.
ibid 386.
118 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
i. Article 7 TFEU and the Principle of Consistency
Article 7 TFEU stipulates that the EU ‘shall ensure consistency between its
policies and activities, taking all of its objectives into account and in
accordance with the principle of conferral of powers.’
Article 7 TFEU is one of several consistency requirements contained
in the Treaty on European Union (‘the TEU’) and the TFEU.
In order to
differentiate the legal demands of such requirements, Franklin provides a
detailed methodological approach to categorising the consistency
requirements found in the EU Treaties.
According to this methodology,
Article 7 constitutes an explicit consistency requirement as it is provided
for in the TFEU. The requirement is horizontal in nature, demanding that
the EU as a whole achieves consistency. In terms of subject-matter, Article
7 TFEU refers to consistency being achieved between all EU policies,
thereby also applying to internal policies, such as data protection and
competition law. In relation to its potential impact, Article 7 TFEU refers
to both ‘policies’ and ‘activities’, which encompasses both policy-making
and further implementation. Moreover, Article 7 TFEU falls under the
Court’s direct jurisdiction, rendering it directly enforceable in practice.
However, the imperative question concerns what type of
consistency is to be achieved by taking all EU objectives into account, as
this goes to the heart of whether Article 16 TFEU, in conjunction with
Article 7 TFEU, could be invoked to incorporate data protection concerns
into competition analysis.
ii. Interpretation of Consistency
The interpretation of the principle of consistency is far from clear. It is
contended that consistency, in its narrow sense, refers to the ‘absence of
contradiction’, whereas, in a broad sense can be interpreted as coherence
which relates to ‘positive connections’.
The interpretation of consistency
is particularly pertinent to the present discussion concerning the potential
Articles 13(1), 17, 18 and 21(3) TEU and articles 181(1) and 212(1) TFEU.
Christian NK Franklin, ‘The Burgeoning Principle of Consistency in EU Law’ (2011) 30 YEL
42, 53-58.
The Court of Justice’s only jurisdictional limits in relation to the EU Treaties are provided
in articles 24 TEU and articles 275 and 276 TFEU.
Christophe Hillion, ‘Tous pour un, un pour tous! Coherence in the External Relations of
the European Union’ in Marise Cremona (ed), EU External Relations Law, Collected Course of
the Academy of European Law (OUP 2008) 10, 14.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 119
impact that Article 7 TFEU could have on incorporating data protection
concerns into competition law as the different understandings differ
immensely in terms of their potential instrumentality. The reason for this
being that coherence is a matter of degree, whereas consistency is a static
notion in the sense that concepts of law can be more or less coherent but
cannot be more or less consistent.
As such, a narrow construction of
consistency would appear to be inherently instrumental as a legal
Thus, whether the consistency requirement is to be interpreted
in a narrow or broad sense is of particular importance as it could result in
different legal obligations being imposed in practice.
On the one hand, defining consistency as an ‘absence of
contradictions’ would necessitate that data protection concerns be taken
into account to the extent that no contradictions would arise with the
principles provided for within the data protection framework, for instance
the principle of consent.
Under this interpretation, Article 16 TFEU, read
in conjunction with Article 7 TFEU would require the Commission to
actively consider whether its actions contradict any established principles
of data protection law.
However, Franklin is of the opinion that duties to take account of
policy considerations do not appear to be designed so as to ensure that
consistency in a narrow sense is achieved in practice.
As discussed above,
by its nature, a duty to take into account is a flexible obligation as matters
need only be taken into account, as opposed to adhering to a more
stringent standard. Moreover, Franklin submits that were the Court to
interpret consistency under Article 7 TFEU as requiring an absence of
contradictions, it might prove ‘absurdly difficult - if not practically
impossible - to avoid breaches from occurring in practice.’
While, it may
be clear to envisage how the Commission could alter its practice in order
to ensure an absence of contradictions with data protection, it must be
remembered that Article 7 TFEU requires such consistency to be achieved
between all the EU’s policies which when contemplated, gives force to
Franklin’s conclusion that it would be ‘absurdly difficult’ to abide by such
a consistency requirement in practice.
On the other hand, applying consistency as interpreted akin to the
notion of coherence, is problematic. Trying to decipher what the standard
ibid 14.
Franklin (n 47) 47.
Article 7 GDPR.
Franklin (n 47) 66.
ibid 70.
120 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
demands in practice, brings to mind the quotation, ‘it is easier to write ten
volumes of philosophy than to put a single precept into practice.’
First and foremost, coherence is open to two interpretations. Under
the first understanding it is found that consistency in the sense of an
absence of contradictions will always be necessary for achieving any
degree of coherence, although even then, more may be required.
this first understanding, in requiring an absence of contradictions, would
amount to a similar obligation as discussed above. However, according to
the second understanding, coherence may be established even in the face
of contradiction so long as there are other justifying factors.
While coherence in this second sense could allow for data protection
concerns to be taken into account in the application of competition law, it
lacks the equivalent legal force of an ‘absence of contradictions’ standard
as it would allow the existence of contradiction to be justified. Franklin
provides two examples of what could justify a contradiction: firstly, the
practical impossibility of seeking to take into account all policy objectives;
and secondly, arguments that the objectives were taken into account, yet
subsequently disregarded.
In this regard, it is not inconceivable that the
Commission could justify its position for leaving the data protection
concerns to the relevant authorities on the basis of, for instance, expertise
or avoiding duplication. Therefore, while coherence in a broad sense could
act as a legal basis for taking data protection concerns into account, it
could also be used to justify the Commission’s current position.
C. Effectiveness
From the foregoing analysis it is established that both Article 12 TFEU and
Article 16 TFEU, read in conjunction with Article 7 TFEU, have the
potential to integrate data protection considerations into competition
analysis. However, the parameters of these obligations remain undefined
and ambiguous which leaves the effectiveness of these gateways
Moreover, apart from the question regarding the extent of the
obligation imposed by the provisions of the TFEU, there are other factors
which may undermine the effectiveness of these gateways, namely, the
R F Christian, Tolstoy’s Diaries, Volume I: 1847-1894 (Diary Entry on 17th March 1847),
(Athlone Press, 1985).
Franklin (n 47), 49.
ibid 49.
ibid 74.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 121
position in the assessment under the respective provisions and the
standing requirements under Article 263 TFEU.
i. Position in Assessment
While it is found that data protection considerations may be taken into
account, their position in the assessment differs in each of Article 101
TFEU, Article 102 TFEU and mergers which in turn impacts the extent of
the influence of data protection concerns.
In relation to Article 101 TFEU, the bifurcated structure of the
provision has triggered debate as to the position of public policy objectives
in the analysis under Article 101 TFEU. On the one hand, the position of
the Commission is that non-competition concerns are admissible, provided
that they can be subsumed under the four conditions of Article 101(3)
Following this line of reasoning, data protection considerations
could only function as a justification against the finding of an infringement
under Article 101(1) TFEU but could not be taken into account in order to
establish an infringement of Article 101(1) TFEU. On the other hand, this
view is contested on the basis that it is inconsistent with both the Court’s
case law and the Commission’s decisional practice in which there is
evidence of non-efficiency considerations being taken into account under
Article 101(1) TFEU.
Under this view, data protection concerns could be
taken into account in the finding of an infringement, for example,
undertakings colluding on terms of privacy policies. Evidently, adherence
to the second view provides more scope for data protection considerations
to be taken into account.
Under Article 102 TFEU the potential role of data protection
concerns is more expansive. In assessing whether conduct has abusive
effects under Article 102 TFEU, there is a distinction between firstly,
exclusionary abuses which are those capable of having, and are likely to
have, a foreclosure effect on the market, and secondly, exploitative abuses,
those which are directly exploitative of consumers. In the discussion of
data protection and competition law, the potential role of data protection
concerns in relation to exploitative abuses has been flagged. Notably, the
German Competition Authority (‘Bundeskartellamt’) has initiated
proceedings against Facebook on the allegation that Facebook’s use of
Guidelines on the application of article 81(3) of the Treaty [2004] OJ C101/97, [42].
See: Van Rompuy, Economic Efficiency: The Sole Concern of Modern Antitrust Policy? Non-
efficiency Considerations under Article 101 TFEU (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), 229-
122 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
unlawful terms and conditions could represent an abusive imposition of
unfair conditions on users.
This provides an example of how data
protection concerns could be taken into account in establishing harm
under Article 102 TFEU.
Moreover, data protection considerations could be relevant in
establishing an objective justification under Article 102 TFEU. While the
parameters of accepted justifications are not completely defined, three
categories may be distinguished: efficiencies; objective necessity and
protecting an undertaking’s own commercial interests. Most relevant to
data protection concerns is the category based on objective necessity
which the Commission defines as ‘factors external to the undertaking’.
For example, this justification has been previously invoked, albeit
unsuccessfully, to argue that the behaviour of the dominant undertaking
was necessary in order to make sure that nail guns were used safely.
similar reasoning, data protection considerations could be invoked in
order to justify prima facie abusive behaviour, for instance, data protection
concerns could be invoked in order to justify a refusal to supply by a
dominant undertaking. Therefore, under Article 102, there is scope for data
protection to be taken into account in both establishing harm and
justifying infringements.
In relation to merger control, there is limited scope for taking data
protection considerations into account in the substantive assessment of a
merger’s effect on competition. Under the EUMR, the substantive test is
whether a concentration would significantly impede effective competition
(SIEC test).
This test remains heavily focused on the creation or
strengthening of a dominant position which is based solely on the increase
of market power, thus leaving little scope for taking data protection
considerations into account. However, in accordance with both Article
2(b) EUMR and the requirement to take efficiencies into account,
proportionate data protection benefits or restrictions which are likely to
flow from a proposed transaction could be taken into account under the
SIEC test in the context of assessing whether ‘technical and economic
‘Bundeskartellamt initiates proceedings against Facebook on suspicion of having abused
its market power by infringing data protection rules’
3_2016_Facebook.html> accessed 11 February 2018.
Guidance on the Commission’s enforcement priorities in applying article 82 of the EC
Treaty to abusive exclusionary conduct by dominant undertakings [2009] OJ C45/7, [28].
Case T-30/89, Hilti, EU:T:1991:70, [118].
Article 2(3) EUMR.
Recital 29 EUMR.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 123
progress’ would occur to the benefit of consumers. Similar to the
Commission’s view regarding Article 101 TFEU, such an efficiency
analysis could only operate to justify a concentration and not to establish
an infringement.
ii. Standing Requirements
The standing requirements for judicial review undermine the effectiveness
of the TFEU as a means of incorporating data protection concerns into
competition analysis. The main avenue for those wishing to challenge the
validity of an EU act is through a direct action for annulment under Article
263 TFEU. As a competition decision does not constitute a regulatory act,
according to the rules on locus standi under Article 263 TFEU, in order to
challenge a competition decision on the basis of infringement of Treaty
articles an individual would have to establish individual concern. In order
to demonstrate individual concern it must be shown that a decision affects
an individual by reason of certain attributes which are peculiar to him or
her or by reason of circumstances in which he or she is differentiated from
all other persons and by virtue of these factors distinguishes him or her
individually just as in the case of the person addressed.
It would be
extremely onerous for an individual who wanted to challenge a
competition decision on the basis of failure to take data protection
considerations into account to meet this standard. Thus, the narrow
possibility for judicial review ultimately undermines the effectiveness of
these provisions as gateways for incorporating data protection concerns.
Upon a holistic reading of the TFEU, both Article 12 TFEU and
Article 16 TFEU, read in conjunction with Article 7 TFEU, in principle,
have the potential to integrate data protection considerations into
competition analysis. However, the effectiveness of such incorporation is
impacted by the lingering question regarding the extent of the obligation
imposed, and furthermore by the position in the assessment under each
respective competition provision and the standing requirements under
Article 263 TFEU.
III. Charter of Fundamental Rights
With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the Charter, which
was first drafted and adopted in 2000, became a legally binding instrument
Case 25/62, Plaumann, EU:C:1963:17.
124 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
on equal footing with the TEU and the TFEU.
Pertinently, the Charter
provides for a stand-alone data protection provision with Article 8
recognising that ‘everyone has the right to the protection of personal data
concerning him or her.’
The scope of application of the Charter is established in Article 51(1):
The provisions of this Charter are addressed to the institutions,
bodies, offices and agencies of the Union with due regard for the
principle of subsidiarity and to the Member States only when they are
implementing Union law. They shall therefore respect the rights,
observe the principles and promote the application thereof in
accordance with their respective powers and respecting the limits of
the powers of the Union as conferred on it in the Treaties.
Accordingly, all EU institutions and organs are bound by the Charter, and
can be challenged for failure to respect its terms. To take one example, in
Digital Rights Ireland
the Court, for the first time, declared an EU
instrument - the Data Retention Directive
- entirely invalid, because it
interfered with the fundamental right of data protection as provided for in
the Charter.
Since the Charter has been given binding legal effect, it has gained
widespread application in competition cases. The Charter has been
invoked in order to question the standard of judicial review of Commission
decisions in light of Article 47.
Similarly, parties have appealed to the
Charter in the context of the Commission’s practice of unannounced
inspections or ‘dawn raids’,
to the extent that it is said that it is ‘more or
less standard procedure’ for companies targeted by cartel investigations to
invoke infringement of either one of several Charter provisions.
Therefore, bearing this precedent in mind, the right to data
protection provided for in Article 8 has the potential to constrain the
Article 6(1) TEU.
Joined Cases C-293/12 and 594/12, Digital Rights Ireland, EU:C:2014:238.
Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on
the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free
movement of such data [1995] OJ L/281.
Case C-389/10, P KME Germany and Others v Commission, EU:C:2011:816.
Joined Cases T-289 and 290/11 and T-521/11, Deutsche Bahn and Others v Commission,
Helene Andersson, ‘Dawn Raids in Competition Cases: Do the European Commission’s
Dawn Raid Procedures Stand the Test of the Charter’ in Sybe de Vries, Ulf Bernitz and
Stephen Weatherill (eds) The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as a Binding Instrument (Hart
Publishing 2015), 321.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 125
application of competition law and demand that the Commission takes
data protection concerns into account when applying competition policy.
In this regard, both the principles governing the processing of personal
data and the standard of judicial review in relation to data protection has
the potential to impact the application of competition law.
A. Processing of Personal Data
The principles governing the processing of personal data has the potential
to influence the application of competition law. In order to comply with
Article 8, any decision by the Commission, which involves the processing
of personal data,
must comply with the principles established within the
data protection framework. Article 8(2) states that data must be processed
‘fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person
concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law.’ Thus,
encompassed within Article 8 are both the requirement of a lawful basis
for processing and the principle of purpose limitation.
The requirement of a lawful basis for processing could constitute a
significant constraining factor in the application of competition law.
Notably, the sharing of personal data is often suggested as a remedy to
claims of market power where one entity has control over a large dataset.
However, the sharing of personal data falls within the definition of data
processing and therefore, any order requiring the disclosure of personal
information must, in order to not infringe Article 8, be in compliance with
principles governing data processing. The GDPR provides that the
processing of personal data is lawful if at least one of the following legal
bases applies: consent, contractual necessity, compliance with legal
obligations, vital interests, public interest or legitimate interests.
In order to illustrate the potential influence of the necessity for a
legal basis for processing, experience can be drawn from the practice of
both the French and British national competition authorities (‘NCAs’).
Firstly, the actions of the French Competition Authority (‘Autorité de la
concurrence’) in their legal action against GDF Suez, demonstrate
compliance with the principle of consent. As part of an investigation, the
Autorité de la concurrence instructed GDF to disclose part of its customer
database to competitors, mostly made up of personal data relating to
Article 4(2) GDPR defines data processing as ‘any operation or set of operations which is
performed upon personal data, whether or not by automatic means’.
Articles 6(1)(a)-(f) GDPR.
126 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
identified individuals.
Therefore, the disclosure raised data protection
concerns. In order to address such concerns, GDF Suez was ordered to
obtain consent for the data sharing from all of the affected data subjects.
Secondly, in August 2015, the UK Competition and Market Authority
(‘the CMA’) was seeking to revitalise competition in the energy market
and proposed to make customers’ details available to rival suppliers on a
database. The CMA considered the potential data protection issues
concerning the sharing of personal data and implemented provisions to
comply with principles including consent.
These actions of the NCAs
demonstrate how the requirement for a lawful basis for data processing
could condition the implementation of competition law.
Moreover, the principle of purpose limitation may have
consequences for data sharing under competition law. Article 5(1)(b)
GDPR provides that personal data must be ‘collected for specific, explicit
and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a way incompatible
with those purposes.’
While further processing for a secondary purpose
is not forbidden, the secondary purpose must not be ‘incompatible’ with
the purposes for which the data have been collected. The potential impact
of purpose limitation on competition law would be if the data sharing was
demanded between two companies who were considered competitors but
who used data for different purposes. In this regard, Costa-Cabral and
Lynskey consider that, for example, where personal data is to be collected
by a social networking site, it might not be possible to transfer it to the
provider of a mobile phone application. This would apply even if both
were considered competitors from a competition law perspective, as from
the perspective of the individual, the purposes of the data processing may
be incompatible.
Therefore, in order to comply with the principle of
purpose limitation, personal data could not be transferred without consent
for the new purpose.
Décision n° 14-MC-02 du 9 sep 2014 relative à une demande de mesures conservatoires
présentée par la société Direct Energie dans les secteurs du gaz et de l’électricité.
Competition & Markets Authority, ‘Energy market investigation, Summary of final report’
June 2016, [235]
ergy-final-report-summary.pdf> accessed 11 February 2018.
Article 5(1)(b) GDPR.
Francisco Costa-Cabral and Orla Lynskey, ‘The Internal and External Constraints of Data
Protection on Competition Law in the EU’ LSE Legal Studies Working Paper 25 (2015), 35.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 127
B. Standards of Judicial Review
The Commission’s obligation to respect the right to data protection has
the potential to impact the standard of review of competition decisions.
Notably, this is an area which has previously felt the impact of the Charter,
namely in relation to the right to an effective remedy under Article 47. The
addition of data protection, as a fundamental right, has the potential to
further influence the current standard of judicial review.
Judicial review of competition law is complicated due to the intricate
relationship between application of the law, which falls under the mandate
of judicial review, and underlying economic analysis, which falls within
the discretionary mandate of the Commission.
Where the Treaties have
vested the Commission with a margin of discretion, the Courts are
confined to ‘checking whether the rules on procedure and on stating
reasons have been complied with, whether the facts have been accurately
stated and whether there has been any manifest error of assessment or a
misuse of powers’.
Therefore, as regards complex economic assessments,
the Court exercises a deferential standard of review.
In contrast, the Court takes a strict approach to privacy and data
protection. In a series of judgments the Court has established a strict
standard of review of acts of EU institutions which impact Articles 7 and
8 of the Charter.
In Digital Rights Ireland and Schrems it was explicitly
established that the nature of the rights to privacy and data protection
played an important role in determining the Commission’s reduced
discretion and the test’s strictness.
Evidently, there is an inherent dichotomy between the standards of
‘manifest error of assessment’ and ‘strict scrutiny’. This results in an
obvious tension with regard to judicial review of decisions taken by the
Commission which also engage data protection rights. As the Court’s strict
approach to privacy and data protection applies to acts of all EU
institutions, thus encompassing decisions of DG Competition, this could
impact the standard of judicial review applied to competition decisions.
From the foregoing analysis, it is evident that the Charter of
Fundamental Rights provides significant opportunity for data protection
Firat Cengiz, ‘Judicial Review and the Rule of Law in the EU Competition Law Regime after
Alrosa’ (2011) 7(1) ECJ 127, 128.
Case T-201/04, Microsoft v Commission, EU:T:2007.
Case C-362/14, Schrems v Data Protection Commissioner, EU:C:2015:650; Digital Rights
Ireland (n 68); Case C-131/12, Google Spain and Google Inc, EU:C:2014:317; Joined Cases C-
92/09 and C-93/09, Schecke and Eiffert, EU:C:2009:284.
Schrems (n 81), para 78; Digital Rights Ireland (n 68) [48].
128 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
to be taken into account in competition policy. However, there is one
limiting factor. In order to challenge a Commission decision on the basis
of infringement of a Charter right, an individual would have to satisfy the
stringent standing requirements outlined in section 3.3.2. Ultimately, this
has the potential to undermine the effectiveness of Article 8 as a gateway
by which to incorporate data protection concerns into competition law.
IV. Public Interest Considerations in Merger Control
Merger control has been at the centre of the debate regarding the
intersection between data protection and competition law due to a series
of cross-border transactions, such as Facebook/WhatsApp.
Due to the
realisation that possession of Big Data generates significant advantages,
mergers and acquisitions in digital markets have become more frequent
for undertakings wishing to obtain datasets in situations where the target
company may not always have a big turnover, but is regarded as valuable
due to its dataset.
This was evident in the Facebook/WhatsApp merger
where Facebook bought the messaging application WhatsApp for $19
billion while it was estimated that the company only had a revenue of $20
million. However, with 315 million active daily users, it is clear that the
value of the company lay in its dataset.
Data protection and privacy issues represent ‘the other side of the
of data-driven mergers. While online platforms such as Google and
Facebook use personal data to enhance users’ experiences and provide
more personally relevant services, the accumulation of vast amounts of
data about consumer behaviour combined with the expansion of targeted
advertising imposes costs in the form of the loss of privacy on
Therefore, mergers and acquisitions in digital markets have
become a focal point for data protection concerns. However, the
relationship between non-competition concerns and merger control is
Facebook/WhatsApp (n 19).
Hanna Stakheyeva and Fevzi M Toksoy, ‘Merger control in the big data world: to be or not
to be revisited?’ (2017) 38(6) ECLR 265, 265.
In the matter of Google/DoubleClick FTC File No. 071-0170, Dissenting Statement of
Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour, 9
google/doubleclick/071220harbour_0.pdf> accessed 11 February 2018.
OECD, Big Data: Bringing Competition Policy to the Digital Era, DAF/COMP(2016)14, 17
accessed 11 February 2018.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 129
Merger control within the EU is governed by Regulation No.
(‘the EUMR’). While, the EUMR is predominantly based on
competition interests, it does provide for limited evaluation of public
interest concerns under Article 21(4). Therefore, it is proposed to examine
whether data protection could be considered a public interest within this
A. Article 21(4) EUMR
Article 21(4) provides that even where the Commission has exclusive
Member States may take appropriate measures to protect
legitimate interests other than those taken into consideration by the EUMR
which are compatible with the general principles and other provisions of
EU law.
The provision operates by allowing non-competition concerns to be
invoked by Member States for jurisdictional purposes i.e. Member States
can seek to remove certain aspects of the transaction from the
Commission’s exclusive jurisdiction. Therefore, under Article 21(4) the
Commission assesses the effect of a merger on competition, while Member
States are permitted to intervene on public interest grounds. This is
distinguished from the invocation of non-competition concerns for
substantive purposes, i.e influencing the Commission’s assessment of a
merger’s effect on competition, as was considered in section 3.3.1.
Article 21(4) distinguishes between two types of public interest,
firstly, specified ‘recognised interests’ which are considered prima facie
legitimate, and secondly, ‘other public interests’ which, in order to ensure
the effet utile of the EUMR, require ex ante review by the Commission.
Article 21(4) stipulates that public security, plurality of the media, and
prudential rules, are considered to be ‘recognised’ public interests.
Therefore, Member States may adopt measures to protect these interests
without prior communication to, and approval from, the Commission. It is
evident, and therefore unnecessary to elaborate, that data protection could
not fall within the scope of any of these recognised interests.
Member States may invoke other legitimate public interests under
Article 21(4) other than those considered ‘recognised interests’. Notably,
this catch-all provision in Article 21(4) is rarely invoked and the
Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings [2004]
OJ L24/1.
Pursuant to Article 21(2) and (3), the Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to assess the
competitive impact of concentrations with a Community dimension as defined in articles 1
and 3 EUMR.
130 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
Commission tends to reject requests from Member States to adopt
measures to protect non-recognised interests. That being said, the
possibility does exist. In order for an interest to be recognised, it must,
firstly, be considered a ‘public interest’ and secondly, be compatible with
the general principles and other provisions of EU law, including
proportionality and non-discrimination, as well as to provisions of
primary and secondary EU law. Of particular significance to mergers and
acquisitions are the rules regarding free movement of capital and freedom
of establishment, Articles 49 and 63 TFEU.
B. Data Protection as a Legitimate Public Interest
The internet permeates every aspect of our lives, thus changing our society
in a fundamental way, and along with it our values and interests. With the
exponential growth of information sharing, protecting our privacy online
has become a vitally important interest in society. The concept of public
interest is both expansive and relative as it can encompass various values
shared by a respective state and also varies depending on the time and the
This dynamic nature of the concept of public interest is illustrated
by the justification standard employed in free movement law which,
accordingly, does not require a static conception of public interest.
Therefore, it is contended that data protection could satisfy the first
requirement and be considered a ‘public interest’.
As data protection has, to date, not been raised as a public interest
justification within free movement law, it is proposed that an analogy
could be drawn to consumer protection which has been recognised as
constituting an overriding reason in the general interest.
The Court has
been willing to accept that certain groups of consumers require enhanced
protection, for instance, protecting the interests of particularly vulnerable
consumers. This is focused - targeted - consumer protection.
instance, in Citroën Belux,
the Court found that ‘financial services are, by
nature, complex and entail specific risks with regard to which the
Mateusz Blachucki, ‘Public interest considerations in merger control assessment’ (2014)
35(8) ECLR 380, 383.
Niamh Nic Shuibhne, ‘Primary Laws: Judging Free Movement Restrictions After Lisbon’ in
Panos Koutrakos, Niamh Nic Shuibhne and Phil Syrpis (eds) Exceptions from EU Free
Movement Law (Hart Publishing 2016), 297.
Case C-225/15, Politanò, EU:C:2016:645, [39].
Stpehen Weatherill, ‘Justification, Proportionality and Consumer Protection’ in Panos
Koutrakos, Niamh Nic Shuibhne and Phil Syrpis (eds) Exceptions from EU Free Movement Law
(Hart Publishing 2016) 250.
Case C-265/12, Citroën Belux, EU:C:2013:498.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 131
consumer is not always sufficiently well informed.’
The protection of
consumers in the realm of Internet use necessitates a similar approach. As
in the financial service industry, significant information asymmetries exist
between Internet users and service providers. For instance, it has been
estimated that it would take the average Internet user 76 days to read every
privacy policy he or she encountered online in a year.
These information
asymmetries combined with the harm to the consumer in the form of loss
of privacy justifies a similar approach to that which already exists in the
Court’s analysis of consumer protection. Therefore, on the same reasoning
that consumer protection has been recognised as a legitimate public
interest, data protection could be accepted by the Court.
One of the greatest obstacles in establishing a legitimate public
interest justification is an evidentiary obstacle.
The Court has
emphasised that in order to successfully rely on a public interest claim, the
Member State must adduce appropriate evidence.
In relation to data
protection and mergers, as noted above, there is a consensus that the
accumulation of vast amounts of data about consumer behaviour
combined with the expansion of targeted advertising raises concerns
regarding the privacy of consumers.
Moreover, any conditions attached to a merger would have to satisfy
the requirements of proportionality. An oft-cited example of how merger
conditions could be used to address data protection concerns is a mandated
firewall between the merging entities datasets. It is contended that such a
firewall would be proportionate under free movement law as it is suitable
for elevating privacy concerns due to the accumulation of large datasets
and it is considered to be the least restrictive. To take the
Facebook/WhatsApp decision as an example; despite the assurances from
Facebook at the time of the acquisition that they would be unable to
establish automated matching between Facebook users’ accounts and
WhatsApp users’ accounts, it unfolded that this was not the case when, in
August 2016, it was announced that WhatsApp’s privacy policy was to be
altered in order to enable Facebook to start using data from the messaging
ibid [39].
Madrigal, ‘Reading the Privacy Policies You Encounter in a Year Would Take 76 Work
policies-you-encounter-in-a-year-would-take-76-work-days/253851/> accessed 1 June 2017.
See: Niamh Nic Shuibhne and Marsela Maci, ‘Proving Public Interest: The Growing Impact
of Evidence in Free Movement Case Law’ (2013) 50 CML Rev 965.
Case C-543/08, Commission v Portugal (Golden Shares), EU:C:2010:669, [87]; Case C-319/06,
Commission v Luxembourg, EU:C:2008:350, [51].
OECD (n 86) 17.
132 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
This could have been avoided by the imposition of a firewall,
which would adequately address the concerns regarding the potential
concentration of data and resulting harm to consumers’ privacy.
C. Challenges
While prima facie Article 21(4) seemingly provides a suitable gateway by
which to incorporate data protection concerns into merger control, there
are numerous practical challenges that could impact the provision’s
effectiveness, namely, the interaction with national law and national
institutional arrangements and the potential measures that could be
implemented pursuant to Article 21(4).
i. National Law and Institutional Arrangements
As demonstrated above, in order for data protection to be invoked as a
legitimate interest under Article 21(4) it must not breach EU law. However,
provision must also exist under national law for such a public interest
criteria to be invoked. The frameworks across the Member States diverge
regarding the intersection between merger control and public interest
factors. Three different models can be distinguished: firstly, the governing
framework in some Member States is open-ended allowing for data
protection to be easily included; secondly, some frameworks provide for
non-exhaustive list of specified interests which can be expanded following
a certain procedure; finally, in some Member States the framework is
restrictive providing either an exhaustive list of public interest factors or
no provision at all.
Firstly, the provision for public interest criteria in both the German
and Spanish frameworks is open-ended. The German Act against
Restraints of Competition (GWB) references overriding public interests
which justify restraints of competition but does not define any specific
criteria in order to constitute a public interest consideration.
in Spain, Law 15/2007 sets outs a non-exhaustive list of public interest
grounds. Under such flexible frameworks, it is conceivable that data
protection could be invoked as a legitimate public interest.
WhatsApp Blog, ‘Looking ahead for WhatsApp’
accessed 11 February
S 42, Act against Restraints of Competition (GWB).
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 133
Secondly, in the UK, provision is made under the Enterprise Act,
2002 allowing for intervention in mergers on certain specified public
interest grounds.
The Enterprise Act recognises the possibility that
these grounds for intervention could be supplemented. A public interest
consideration can only be adopted by way of adopting a statutory
instrument approved by Parliament through an affirmative procedure.
This has happened once previously in relation to the Lloyds TSB and
HBOS merger. In order to allow the Lloyds merger on public interest
grounds, the Secretary of State had to create a new public interest ground
- stability of the financial system - with the consent of Parliament.
Therefore, while provision for data protection as a legitimate interest is
possible, the procedure to be followed is stringent.
Thirdly, in Ireland, provision only exists for intervention to protect
the plurality of the media.
While, in Belgium the Government’s power
to overturn merger decisions on public interest grounds was withdrawn
in 2013.
Therefore, the possibility of data protection being considered as
a public interest in these jurisdictions is limited due to the constraints
imposed by national legislation.
Furthermore, the relationship between national competition and
data protection authorities would hold particular practical relevance,
pertinently in relation to the issue of which authority would conduct the
public interest assessment. As data protection is not currently considered
a public interest in any Member State, there is no formal provision for
consultation between national competition and data protection
authorities. However, a parallel can be drawn between the systems in place
for consultation with, inter alia, communication or energy regulators. For
example, in the UK, provision is made for the CMA and OFCOM (UK
communications regulator) to submit a report to the Secretary of State
regarding public interest considerations.
Therefore, it is foreseeable that
if data protection is considered a public interest, provision could be made
for consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office (UK data
protection regulator). Such provision would be preferable if data
protection was to be effectively protected within the merger framework.
S 58, Enterprise Act, 2002.
S 2, SI 2008/2645, The Enterprise Act 2002 (Specification of Additional Section 58
Consideration) Order 2008.
Part 3A, Competition and Consumer Protection Act, 2014.
Alison Jones and John Davies, ‘Merger control and the public interest: balancing EU and
national law in the protectionist debate’ (2014) 10(3) ECJ 453, fn45.
Ss 44(3)(b) and 44A, Enterprise Act, 2002.
134 Trinity College Law Review [Vol 21]
ii. Potential Measures under Article 21(4)
The successful invocation of Article 21(4) allows the Member State, on the
basis of national law, to subject a merger to additional conditions or to
block it altogether, provided this is proportionate in order to protect the
interest concerned.
The ability of Member States to impose conditions on a merger under
Article 21(4) is governed by national law. As data protection is a
harmonised field, the scope for measures is dependent on the EU
framework. In this regard, under EU data protection law, national
authorities can only impose behavioural remedies and sanction companies
after they have infringed the rules. Crucially, the framework does not
provide national authorities with the possibility of adopting prospective
or structural measures. Therefore, in relation to potential measures
imposed pursuant to Article 21(4) it does not appear possible for a national
data protection authority to either subject a merger to any conditions or
block it, if it does not give rise to data protection issues at the time the
merger is approved by the Commission under the EUMR.
This extremely limits the potential effectiveness of Article 21(4) as a
gateway to incorporating data protection concerns into merger control.
Due to this limitation a national data protection authority would only be
capable of imposing conditions on a merger under Article 21(4) if the
transaction in and of itself infringes data protection rules. However, if it is
merely anticipated that certain data protection issues may arise at some
point in the future, the only option would be to monitor whether the
merged entity continues to comply with its data protection obligations. If
indications arise at a later date that the merged entity is in breach of the
relevant rules, an investigation may be initiated under data protection law
outside the framework of Article 21(4). Thus, the procedure under Article
21(4) is only relevant for mergers which at the time of their notification to
the Commission already raise data protection concerns.
Merger control is at the forefront of the discussion regarding data
protection concerns and competition policy. From the preceding analysis
it is established that Article 21(4) could be invoked by Member States in
order to allow for national measures to be taken in order to protect
personal data in these large data-driven mergers. However, successful
invocation is dependent on a provision existing within the national
framework for data protection to constitute a public interest. Moreover,
Graef (n 9) 20.
ibid 21.
[2018] Data Protection and Competition Law 135
the potential relationship between national competition and data
protection authorities will be of practical relevance to an effective data
protection assessment. Furthermore, the effectiveness of Article 21(4) is
diminished by the constraints on the potential measures which could be
imposed on mergers.
This article has explored and considered the possible legal bases for the
incorporation of data protection, as a non-economic concern, into
competition policy. While the Commission and the Court have
consistently abided by the view that there is a strict delineation between
the two fields, it has been established herein that, within the EU legal
order, there is scope for incorporation of data protection concerns into
competition enforcement. Firstly, upon a holistic reading of the TFEU, both
Article 12 TFEU and Article 16 TFEU, read in conjunction with Article 7
TFEU, provide a legal basis for competition enforcement to take data
protection considerations into account. Secondly, by virtue of the right to
data protection being enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the
Commission is obliged to respect that right in the application of
competition law. Finally, pursuant to Article 21(4) EUMR there is scope for
Member States to invoke data protection as a public interest factor in
mergers. While each gateway is faced with challenges regarding its
potential effectiveness, in principle, the legal basis exists.
Therefore, in conclusion, competition law is not a lonely
and against the fast evolving backdrop of the digital economy,
it is considered that in order to ensure the effectiveness of data protection,
a more holistic approach should be adopted with competition enforcement
taking privacy considerations into account.
Hearing of the European Commission for Competition Margrethe Vestager before the
European Parliament, 2 October 2014
2014/en/schedule/02-10-2014/margrethe-vestager> accessed 1 June 2017.

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