EU court order Jehovah’s Witnesses to comply with data protection rules

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The European Union’s top court ruled on Tuesday that the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group must comply with data protection rules when members go preaching door-to-door.

The case relates to a Finnish ban that keeps the organisation from collecting or processing personal information unless it complies with data protection rules, a decision that the Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged.

The Finnish court turned to the European Court of Justice for help in interpreting EU law. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community take notes and gather information on people they visit during their preaching activities.

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This can include names and addresses, information on their religious beliefs and family circumstances. The data can serve as a memory aid ahead of subsequent visits, without the knowledge or consent of those concerned, the court noted.

The EU applies stringent rules to personal data and its collection and use, requiring the consent of the person it relates to among other things except if the data is being used for purely personal means.

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Door-to-door preaching is not covered by this exception, even if it is covered by the fundamental right to freedom of religion, the Luxembourg-based judges found. They took into account the structured filing systems used to store the data collected from preaching.

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“By organising, coordinating and encouraging preaching activities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses group and its members can be viewed as controllers of the data,” the judges argued.

The case now reverts back to the Finnish court, which must make a final assessment on whether this is the case.

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