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ECHR To Decide Finnish Tax Data Publishing Case

by Ulrika Lomas,, Brussels

16 September 2016

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is deciding whether the two companies behind a Finnish newspaper should be allowed to publish information about taxpayers.

The case has its origins in an administrative complaint by the Finnish Data Protection Ombudsman in April 2003 concerning the manner and extent of taxpayer information published by two Finnish limited liability companies Satakunnan Markkinapörssi Oy and Satamedia Oy in the newspaper Veropörssi.

The case was referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR on December 14, 2015, following several appeals through the Finnish legal system and to the ECHR itself.

According to the details of the case, Veropörssi reported certain information on persons' tax affairs, including taxable income and assets. However, in 2003, Satamedia Oy, together with a telephone operator, started a text messaging service permitting people to obtain taxation information from a database, which was created using 1.2m taxpayer records already published by Veropörssi.

The Data Protection Board subsequently dismissed the Ombudsman's request on the grounds that the companies in question were engaged in journalism and so were not bound by the provisions of Finland's Personal Data Act. This was a decision overturned by Finland's Supreme Administrative Court, which found in September 2009 that the publication of the database was not journalistic activity, but the processing of personal data and therefore illegal.

After the case was referred back to the Data Protection Board, the companies were prevented from processing taxation information to the extent that they had in 2002 and from passing such data to the SMS service, resulting in a substantial reduction in the amount of taxpayer data published in Veropörssi and the closure of the messaging service.

The Board's decision was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court in June 2012, and in December 2012, the companies lodged a complaint with the ECHR, alleging that the Board's ruling amounted to censorship. They also argued that they are being discriminated against as other journals continue to publish taxpayer information.

In its Chamber judgment of July 21, 2015, the ECHR ruled that there had been no violation of the companies' right to freedom of expression because the decisions by the Finnish authorities and courts had been "reasonable" and struck a fair balance between the competing interests at stake, namely the applicant companies' freedom to impart information about matters of public interest, and the right to respect the private lives of those taxpayers whose taxation information had been published. The Chamber also found that the companies' claims of discrimination were "manifestly ill-founded."

The Grand Chamber heard the case on September 14, although its ruling will be made at a later stage.

TAGS: court | tax | interest | law | Finland | Europe

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