Data-Scraping: A Stern Limitation by the French Data Protection Authority to Direct Marketing Practices

11 Maret 2021

The French Supervisory Authority (CNIL) wrapped up 2020 with a EUR 20,000 fine against NESTOR, a French food preparation and delivery company catering to office employees (see full decision here in French).1

Various breaches of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)2 and the ePrivacy Directive regarding the processing of prospects and clients’ personal data were highlighted by the CNIL, most notably:

  • The lack of prior consent of the prospects to receiving direct marketing communication by electronic means, thereby violating Article L.34-5 of the French Post and Electronic Communications Code (CPCE);3 
  • The failure to properly inform individuals4 whether:
    • Upon the creation of their account on the company’s platform, or
    • Upon indirect collection through external sources;
  • The failure to properly address data subjects’ access requests (DSAR).5

While the fine is rather limited in view of the maximum potential amount of EUR 20 million or four percent of the turnover (whichever the greater), this decision remains an opportunity to look at web scraping and direct marketing practices, which are rapidly developing.

Data Scraping and Data Protection Rules

NESTOR built up a database of prospective clients by automatically collecting personal data made publicly available through third party platform, a practice known as “data scraping” or “web-scraping”, massively used by startup and emerging companies to quickly develop their marketing campaigns.

This database, comprising 635,033 contacts, had been established through a plurality of third party services:

  • The personal data was initially collected through LinkedIn’s “Sales Navigator” functionality, which lists all individuals working in a company and in a given region;
  • A second company then added the professional e-mail addresses of the individuals; and
  • A third company proceeded with the dispatch of prospecting e-mails on behalf of NESTOR.

Under Article 13.1 of ePrivacy Directive, such practice would require a GDPR-compliant6 consent by the data subject prior to sending direct marketing communication through electronic means. Indeed, the ePrivacy Directive prohibits direct marketing via “electronic means” (i.e. emails, text messages, facsimile or automated calling machines7), unless such marketing practices are undertaken by the entity which effectively directly collected the personal data in the first place, within the framework of a sale of a product or the provision of a service, and aim to offer similar products and services.

This Article of the ePrivacy Directive was subsequently implemented under French law in the Article L.34-5 CPCE.

Provided that NESTOR did collect the personal data not from the individuals themselves but through LinkedIn’s functionality, prior consent was therefore required.

In addition, companies relying on indirectly collected personal data also fall within the scope of Article 14 GDPR, which mandates the provision of certain information to data subjects, at least within 30 days from the provision (or harvesting) of their personal data.

NESTOR’s case: the specifics of the legal basis

While the ePrivacy Directive has been implemented differently in various EU Member states (and while waiting for its successor, the ePrivacy Regulation, to harmonize this area), the CNIL interpretation may have EU-wide consequences for all companies.

Most notably, certain EU Member states elected to implement the ePrivacy Directive with a strict interpretation, i.e. consent requirement for all data subject recipients. Other included a consent exemption for B2B direct marketing. In that regard, France’s exemption takes the form of a single webpage (non-binding and likely to be amended at any time) on its website stating that prior information and a right of opposition offered to professionals is sufficient for direct marketing purposes.

NESTOR built its defense on that exemption, arguing it therefore did not require any prior consent and could instead rely on its legitimate interest as a legal basis for the direct marketing operations through electronic means.

However, the CNIL swept away that argument on the basis that messages regarding food delivery in the workplace had little connection with the prospects’ effective professional activity, despite being performed during such professional activity. According to the CNIL, a direct link between the marketing operation and the prospects’ professional activity was necessary to justify relying on legitimate interest.

Additional aggravating factors consisted in the lack of information provided to the individuals about the processing operations and the lack of opportunity to oppose such collection.

This decision has been published six months after the CNIL released its position on the collection of publicly available personal data (see our previous alert here) and is a stark reminder that the mere availability of data online would not, in and of itself, justify their collection and re-use without proper diligence. Moreover, aside from data protection concerns, data scraping may also be subject to additional restrictions, such as intellectual property or database protection.

Why this decision matters?

This decision might seem anecdotal given its amount. Nevertheless, its significance is not simply based on its fine’s low amount but rather on the subject matter of the decision itself, as it is a firm limitation by the CNIL to the practice of web scraping via third party platform, such as LinkedIn, for direct marketing purposes, and a potential indication that the current B2B exemption may come to an end, at least under its current scope.

To give greater significance to this case, the CNIL made the decision public, and provided a very comprehensive article of this decision on its website, detailing the various breaches committed by the company.

This significance is also highlighted by the decision published by the CNIL the previous day, on 7 December 2020, against PERFORMECLIC8 which also addressed direct marketing and indirect collection (however not related to data scraping). This seems to indicate that further investigations on direct marketing practices are a priority for the French Supervisory Authority for this year.

The K&L Gates Data Protection team remains available to assist you in achieving compliance of your direct marketing activities across Europe.