In its decision of August 29, 2019 (GZ DSBD123.874/0016-DSB/2019), the data protection authority had to decide, among other things, whether the complainant’s right to information had been violated by the fact that the respondent, a religious community recognized in Austria, did not provide him with copies of certain documents that it kept in a sealed envelope. The complainant had left the respondent’s religious community.
First, the data protection authority addressed the question of whether the global data protection guidelines published on the website of the data controllers constitute regulations within the meaning of Art. 91 Par. 1 GDPR and denied this on the grounds that these do not appear to be comprehensive enough, which is why the case had to be assessed on the basis of the GDPR.
Next, it had to be examined whether the sealed envelope is a file system as defined by Art. 4 line 6 DSGVO. According to the definition of the
Art. 4 Z 6 DSGVO to be understood as any structured collection of personal data accessible according to certain criteria, regardless of whether this collection is maintained centrally, decentrally or according to functional or geographical aspects. In its judgment of 10.6.2018 (C-25/17), the ECJ dealt with the concept of a file system and stated therein that a file is sorted according to certain criteria if it can be easily retrieved. The personal data need not be contained in specific card indexes or directories or any other search system. The data protection authority was guided by this criterion. The envelope subject to the proceedings is labeled with the name of the complainant, the reason for leaving the community and the date of leaving. This serves the purpose of easier retrieval and targeted search of persons. It can be assumed that several envelopes of this type are kept by the respondent, which is why the data protection authority came to the conclusion that, with regard to the sealed envelope, the material scope of application pursuant to Art. 2 Para. 1 GDPR is opened.
The respondent argued that it did not provide the complainant with copies of the documents in the sealed envelope because its procedure was in accordance with customary religious law and had been the practice of the religious community worldwide for decades, there were often facts that were part of the private or intimate sphere of the parties involved, and the protection of pastoral secrecy was of the utmost importance.
According to Art. 15 para. 4 GDPR, the right to receive a copy pursuant to para. 3 do not interfere with the rights and freedoms of another person. This also includes the rights of the person responsible. ErwGr. 63 suggests a balancing of interests in the case of such tensions and mentions, for example, trade secrets and intellectual property rights. The data protection authority had to examine whether the rights and freedoms of the respondent within the meaning of Art. 15 para. 4 DSGVO preclude the provision of data copies. According to rec. 4, the GDPR is consistent with all fundamental rights and respects all freedoms and principles recognized by the Charter, including, among others, freedom of conscience and religion.
The rights of the respondent in the present case are those arising from Article 15 of the Austrian Constitution, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 17 of the TFEU. These not only protect the rights of individual believers and non-believers, but also establish a fundamental right to corporate religious freedom.
The question arose whether granting the complaint would interfere with the internal affairs of the religious community. In the case at hand, the data protection authority concluded that the respondent’s practice of keeping envelopes containing documents relating to the departure of a member from its community sealed constituted an internal matter. In this respect, it is a question that the data protection authority, as a state authority, is not allowed to assess. A copy of the complainant’s personal data contained in the sealed envelope was therefore not to be provided and the complaint was to be dismissed to that effect.
This decision is not legally binding.