Guidelines 07/2020 on the concepts of controller and processor in the GDPR
Paragraph 2.1.2 “Determines”
19. The second building block of the controller concept refers to the controller’s influence over the processing, by virtue of an exercise of decision-making power. A controller is a body that decides certain key elements about the processing. This controllership may be defined by law or may stem from ananalysis of the factual elements or circumstances of the case. One should look at the specific processing operations in question and understand who determines them, by first considering the following questions: “why is this processing taking place?” and “who decided that the processing should take place for a particular purpose?”.
Circumstances giving rise to control
20. Having said that the concept of controller is a functional concept, it is therefore based on a factual rather than a formal analysis. In order to facilitate the analysis, certain rules of thumb and practical presumptions may be used to guide and simplify the process. In most situations, the “determining body” can be easily and clearly identified by reference to certain legal and/or factual circumstances from which “influence” normally can be inferred, unless other elements indicate the contrary. Two categories of situations can be distinguished: (1) control stemming from legal provisions; and (2) control stemming from factual influence.
1) Control stemming from legal provisions
21. There are cases where control can be inferred from explicit legal competence e.g., when the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination are designated by national or Union law. Indeed, Article 4 (7) states that “where the purposes and means of such processing are determined by Union or Member State law, the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination may be provided for by Union or Member State law. ”Where the controller has been specifically identified by law this will be determinative for establishing who is acting as controller. This presupposes that the legislator has designated as controller the entity that has a genuine ability to exercise control. In some countries, the national law provides that public authorities are responsible for processing of personal data within the context of their duties.
22. However, more commonly, rather than directly appointing the controller or setting out the criteria for its appointment, the law will establish a task or impose a duty on someone to collect and process certain data. In those cases, the purpose of the processing is often determined by the law. The controller will normally be the one designated by law for the realization of this purpose, this public task. For example, this would be the case where an entity which is entrusted with certain public tasks (e.g., social security) which cannot be fulfilled without collecting at least some personal data, sets up a database or register in order to fulfil those public tasks. In that case, the law, albeit indirectly, sets out who is the controller. More generally, the law may also impose an obligation on either public or private entities to retain or provide certain data. These entities would then normally be considered as controllers with respect to the processing that is necessary to executet his obligation.
Example: Legal provisions
The national law in Country A lays down an obligation for municipal authorities to provide social welfare benefits such as monthly payments to citizens depending on their financial situation. In order to carry out these payments, the municipal authority must collect and process data about theapplicants’ financial circumstances. Even though the law does not explicitly state that the municipal authorities are controllers for this processing, this follows implicitly from the legal provisions.
2) Control stemming from factual influence
23. In the absence of controlarising from legal provisions, the qualification of a party as controller must be established on the basis of an assessment of the factual circumstances surrounding the processing. All relevant factual circumstances must be taken into account in order to reach a conclusion as to whether a particular entity exercises a determinative influence with respect to the processing of personal data in question.
24. The need for factual assessment also means that the role of a controller does not stem from the nature of an entity that is processing data but from its concrete activities in a specific context. In other words, the same entity may act at the same time as controller for certain processing operations and as processor for others, and the qualification as controller or processor has to be assessed with regard to each specific data processing activity.
25. In practice, certain processing activities can be considered as naturally attached to the role or activities of an entity ultimately entailing responsibilities from a data protection point of view. This can be due to more general legal provisions or an established legal practice in different areas (civil law, commercial law, labour law etc.). In this case, existing traditional roles and professional expertise that normally imply a certain responsibility will help in identifying the controller, for example an employer in relation to processing personal data about his employees, a publisher processing personal data about its subscribers, or an association processing personal data about its members or contributors. When an entity engages in processing of personal data as part of its interactions with its own employees, customers or members, it will generally be the one who factually can determine the purpose and means around the processing and is therefo reacting as a controller within the meaning of the GDPR.
Example: Law firms
The company ABC hires a lawfirm to represent it in a dispute. In order to carry out this task, the lawfirm needs to process personal data related to the case. The reasons for processing the personal data is the lawfirm’s mandate to represent the client in court. This mandate however is not specifically targeted to personal data processing. The lawfirm acts with a significant degree of independence, for example in deciding what information to use and how to use it, and there are no instructions from the client company regarding the personal data processing. The processing that the lawfirm carries out in order to fulfil the task as legal representative for the company is therefore linked to the functional role of the lawfirm so that it is to be regarded as controller for this processing.