The international dimension to privacy law has come sharply into focus following the unauthorised taking and publication (both in hard copy and on the internet) of photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge during a holiday in France. Although the French proceedings brought by the Duchess and by her husband are not complex in private international terms, they have provided a trigger for discussion of the way in which private international law in Europe deals with harmful conduct of this kind. This paper is the author’s contribution to an online symposium on the Duchess of Cambridge case organised on conflictoflaws.net.In discussing the judgment by the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Nanterre Dickinson comments -
the decision may be criticised in no less than seven respects.
First, having expressed ubiquitous remarks about the ubiquitous nature of internet publications (para, 45), the Court observed (with good reason) that this causes difficulty in applying the criterion of “damage” as a factor connecting the tort to a given legal system for the purposes of Art. 5(3) of the Regulation: “the internet reduces the usefulness of the criterion relating to distribution in so far as the scope of the distribution of content placed online is in principle universal” (para. 46). In light of these conclusions, and given that the special rules of jurisdiction are intended to secure “a close link between the court and the action” and/or “to facilitate the sound administration of justice” (Recital (12); see also para. 40 of the eDate judgment), one might have expected that the Court would conclude that the concept of “harmful event” should be given a narrow reading in cases of this kind so as to exclude the criterion of damage as a connecting factor for jurisdiction purposes (for an analogous approach in a contractual context, see Case C-256/00, Besix, paras 32 and following). That conclusion would have been consistent with the dominant approach in the case law to the interpretation of exceptions to the general rule in Art. 2 (e.g. Case C-103/05, Reisch Montage, paras 22 and 23). The Court, however, chose a different path.
Secondly, the Court asserted that the connecting factors used within Art. 5(3) “must therefore be adapted in such a way that a person who has suffered an infringement of a personality right by means of the internet may bring an action in one forum in respect of all the damage caused” (para 48). This argument, which the Court uses as its launching pad for its novel “centre of gravity approach”, is utterly devoid of merit. As the Court had acknowledged (para. 43), the claimant in such a case already has at least one, and possibly, two options available for bringing an action in respect of all the damage caused in one Member State court. Most significantly within the framework of the Regulation, he/she may always bring an action in the Courts of the defendant’s domicile (see Besix, para 50; Case C-420/97, Leathertex, para 41). Moreover, if the publication emanates from an establishment in a Member State other than that of the publisher’s domicile, the claimant may bring an action in that Member State, as the place of the event giving rise to damage, (Case C-68/93, Shevill, paras 24-25; eDate, para. 42; Case C-523/10, Wintersteiger, paras 36-39). There was no need to create a new global connecting factor.
Thirdly, having concluded that the Regulation did not present the claimant with sufficient options for pursuing his claim, the Court proposed attributing full jurisdiction to “the court of the place where the victim has his centre of interests” on the ground that the impact of material placed online might best be assessed by that court (para. 48), sitting in a place which corresponds in general to the claimant’s habitual residence (para. 49). In these two sentences, and without further explanation or justification, the Court repudiates its longstanding principle of avoiding interpretations of the rules of special jurisdiction in Art. 5 which favour the courts of the claimant’s domicile in such a way as to undermine to an unacceptable degree the protection which Art. 2 affords to the defendant (e.g. Case C-364/93, Marinari, para. 13; Case C-51/97, Réunion Européenne, para. 29). Fourthly, the Court considered that its proposed new ground of jurisdiction has the benefit of predictability for both parties, and that the publisher of harmful conduct will, at the time content is placed online (being, apparently, the relevant time for this purpose†), be in a position to know the centres of interests of the persons who are the subject of that content (para. 50). It is, however, extremely difficult to reconcile this confident statement with the Court’s earlier recognition that “a person may also have the centre of his interests in a Member State in which he does not habitually reside, in so far as other factors, such as the pursuit of a professional activity, may establish the existence of a particularly close link with that State” (para. 49). If predictability were the objective, it is hard to see how the Court could have done more to remove it.
Fifthly, given that a person’s private life (and reputation) may have several centres, which change over time, it does not seem possible to say more than that there might be a strong link between the facts of a particular case and the place where the claimant’s centre of interests is held to lie. Equally, there might not. Take the case of a former Bundesliga footballer, with Polish nationality, who signs for an English club and moves to England. While visiting a German friend, he has rather too much to drink in a nightclub. The story is published, in German, on a German football website. Does the sound administration of justice support giving the English courts jurisdiction over the footballer’s claim against the website publisher? In the Duchess of Cambridge’s case, does the sound administration of justice support giving the English courts jurisdiction over the publication of photographs on a French, or Italian or Irish, website, particularly as the current position is that those courts would have no jurisdiction with respect to hard-copy publications by a newspaper or magazine under the same ownership? Given that the French, Italian or Irish courts would have global jurisdiction under Art. 2, it is suggested that the answer is a resounding “no”.
Sixthly, having decried the utility, in internet cases, of the criterion of damage á la Shevill, the Court inexplicably chose to retain it as a connecting factor for jurisdiction purposes, allowing an action “in each Member State in the territory of which content placed online is or has been accessible” (para. 51). This begs the following question: if the new connecting factor is not a substitute for the “damage” limb of the Bier formulation, what then is it? In para. 48 of its judgment, the Court had seemed to suggest that the claimant’s centre of interests was “the place in which the damage caused in the European Union by that infringement occurred”, but this cannot be taken literally given that the Court returns three paragraphs later to the view that damage may occur in each Member State. The eDate variant of “damage” would seem to be a derivative or indirect form, of the kind that the Court had in its earlier case rejected as being a sufficient foundation for jurisdiction (Marinari, para. 14). If a label is needed, perhaps “damage-lite” would do the job?
Finally, the Court’s assertion that its new rule corresponds to the objective of the sound administration of justice (para. 48) is also called into question by the second part of its judgment, interpreting the eCommerce Directive in a way that gives an essential role in cases falling within its scope to the law of the service provider’s (i.e. the defendant’s) country of origin. Although questions of jurisdiction and applicable law are distinct, and the Brussels I Regulation and eCommerce Directive pursue different objectives, the suitability of the courts of the claimant’s centre of interests is undermined by the need to take into account, in all cross-border cases, a foreign law. By contrast, jurisdiction and applicable law are much more likely to coincide where jurisdiction is vested in the courts of the defendant’s domicile or establishment.