The right to privacy is a highly developed area of law in Europe. All the member states of the European Union (EU) are also signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 8 of the ECHR provides a right to respect for one's "private and family life, his home and his correspondence", subject to certain restrictions. The European Court of Human Rights has given this article a very broad interpretation in its jurisprudence.
In 1980, in an effort to create a comprehensive data protection system throughout Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued its "Recommendations of the Council Concerning Guidelines Governing the Protection of Privacy and Trans-Border Flows of Personal Data". The seven principles governing the OECD’s recommendations for protection of personal data were:
Notice—data subjects should be given notice when their data is being collected;
Purpose—data should only be used for the purpose stated and not for any other purposes;
Consent—data should not be disclosed without the data subject’s consent;
Security—collected data should be kept secure from any potential abuses;
Disclosure—data subjects should be informed as to who is collecting their data;
Access—data subjects should be allowed to access their data and make corrections to any inaccurate data# Accountability—data subjects should have a method available to them to hold data collectors accountable for not following the above principles.
The OECD Guidelines, however, were nonbinding, and data privacy laws still varied widely across Europe. The United States, meanwhile, while endorsing the OECD's recommendations, did nothing to implement them within the United States. However, all seven principles were incorporated into the EU Directive.
In 1981 the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was negotiated within the Council of Europe. This convention obliges the signatories to enact legislation concerning the automatic processing of personal data, which many duly did.
The European Commission realised that diverging data protection legislation amongst EU member states impeded the free flow of data within the EU and accordingly proposed the Data Protection Directive.
Personal data are defined as "any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person ("data subject"); an identifiable person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identification number or to one or more factors specific to his physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity;" (art. 2 a).
This definition is meant to be very broad. Data are "personal data" when someone is able to link the information to a person, even if the person holding the data cannot make this link. Some examples of "personal data" are: address, credit card number, bank statements, criminal record, etc.
The notion processing means "any operation or set of operations which is performed upon personal data, whether or not by automatic means, such as collection, recording, organization, storage, adaptation or alteration, retrieval, consultation, use, disclosure by transmission, dissemination or otherwise making available, alignment or combination, blocking, erasure or destruction;" (art. 2 b).
The responsibility for compliance rests on the shoulders of the "controller", meaning the natural or artificial person, public authority, agency or any other body which alone or jointly with others determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data; (art. 2 d)
The data protection rules are applicable not only when the controller is established within the EU, but whenever the controller uses equipment situated within the EU in order to process data. (art. 4) Controllers from outside the EU, processing data in the EU, will have to follow data protection regulation. In principle, any online business trading with EU residents would process some personal data and would be using equipment in the EU to process the data (i.e. the customer's computer). As a consequence, the website operator would have to comply with the European data protection rules. The directive was written before the breakthrough of the Internet, and to date there is little jurisprudence on this subject.