The hearing at the court of appeal in The Hague in the proceedings of Privacy First against the register for Ultimate Beneficial Owners (UBO) is scheduled for Monday, 27 September 2021.
Following the very critical advice of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), the district court of The Hague confirmed on 18 March 2021 that there is every reason to doubt the validity of the European money laundering directives that form the basis for the UBO register. The judge ruled that it cannot be excluded that the highest European court, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), will conclude that the public nature of the UBO register is not in line with the principle of proportionality. Since a Luxembourg local court has already refered questions about this to the CJEU, the Dutch court in summary proceedings did not find it necessary to ask questions about it as well. Privacy First has appealed the judgment in these summary proceedings, taking the case to the court of appeal of The Hague. Our appeal summons can be found here (pdf in Dutch).
Privacy First requests the court of appeal to ask preliminary questions on the UBO register to the European Court of Justice and calls for the suspension of the operation of the UBO register until these questions have been answered. Privacy First also asks the court to temporarily suspend the public accessibility of the UBO register, at least until the CJEU has ruled on this matter. The court of appeal's ruling is expected a few weeks after the hearing on 27 September 2021.
‘‘The UBO register will put privacy-sensitive data of millions of people up for grabs’’, Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys comments. ‘‘There are doubts from all sides whether this is an effective tool in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the EU will ultimately rule on this. I expect that it will annul the UBO register – at least its public accessibility. Until then, I advise UBOs not to submit any data to the UBO register. Once data have been made public, they cannot be retrieved.’’
Background of the lawsuit against the UBO register
Privacy First is bringing a lawsuit against the Dutch government regarding the UBO Register which was introduced in 2020. In summary proceedings, the invalidity of the EU regulations on which the UBO register is based are being invoked. The consequences of this new legislation are far-reaching. After all, it concerns very privacy-sensitive information. Data about the financial situation of natural persons will be out in the open. More than 1.5 million legal entities in the Netherlands that are listed in the Dutch Trade Register will have to disclose information about their ultimate beneficial owners. The UBO register is accessible to everyone, for €2.50 per retrieval. This level of public accessibility is not proportionate.
On 24 June 2020, the Dutch ‘Implementation Act on Registration of Ultimate Beneficial Owners of Companies and Other Legal Entities’ entered into force. Based on this new Act, a new UBO register linked to the Trade Register of the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce will contain information on all ultimate beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities incorporated in the Netherlands. This information must indicate the interest of the UBO, i.e. 25-50%, 50-75% or more than 75%. In any case, the UBO’s name, month and year of birth as well as nationality will be publicly available for everyone to consult, with all the privacy risks this entails.
Since 27 September 2020, newly established entities must register their UBO in the UBO Register. Existing legal entities have until March 27 2022 to register their UBOs. The law gives only very limited options for shielding information. This is only possible for persons secured by the police, for minors and for those under guardianship. The result will be that the interests of almost all UBOs will become public knowledge.
European Anti-Money Laundering Directive
This new law stems from the Fifth European Anti-Money Laundering Directive, which requires EU Member States to register and disclose to the public the personal data of UBOs. The aim of this is to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. According to the European legislator, the registration and subsequent disclosure of personal data of UBOs, including the interest that the UBO has in a company, contributes to that objective. The public nature of the register would have a deterrent effect on persons wishing to launder money or finance terrorism. But the effectiveness of a UBO register in the fight against money laundering and terrorism has never been substantiated.
Massive privacy violation and fundamental criticism
The question is whether the means does not defeat the purpose. Registering the personal data of all UBOs and making it accessible to everyone is a blanket measure of a preventive nature. 99.99% of all UBOs have nothing to do with money laundering or terrorist financing. If it was in fact proportionate to collect information on UBOs, it should be sufficient if that information is available to those government agencies involved in combating money laundering and terrorism. Making the information completely public is going too far. The European Data Protection Supervisor already ruled that this privacy violation is not proportionate. But this opinion has not led to an amendment of the European directive.
Leading up to the the debate on this law in the Dutch House of Representatives, fundamental criticism came from various quarters. The business community agitated because it feared – and now experiences – an increase in burdens and perceives privacy risks. UBOs of family-owned companies that have remained out of the public eye up until now are running major privacy and security risks. There was also a great deal of attention for the position of parties that attach great importance to the protection of data subjects, such as church communities and social organizations. As for associations and foundations that do not have owners, things are cumbersome: they have to put the data that is already in the Trade Register in another register. Unfortunately, this has not led to any changes in the regulations.
Dutch investigative journalism platform Follow the Money looked into the social costs of the Dutch UBO register. Follow the Money writes: ‘‘The UBO register entails costs, hassle and sometimes slightly absurd bureaucracy for millions of entrepreneurs and directors. The Ministry of Finance reckons the total costs of the register for the business community is 99 million Euros. Another 9 million Euros must be added for one-time implementation costs. When lawyer Volgenant hears about this amount, he reacts with dismay: 'The total costs are much higher than I thought! If you extrapolate that to the whole EU, the costs are astronomical.’’’
Favourable outcome of lawsuit is likely
Privacy First has initiated a lawsuit against the UBO register for violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Privacy First requests the Dutch judiciary to render the UBO register inoperative in the short term and to submit preliminary questions on this subject to the Court of Justice of the European Union. It would not be the first time privacy-violating regulations are repealed by the courts, something that previous Privacy First lawsuits attest to.
The Dutch law and also the underlying European directive are in conflict with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as the General Data Protection Regulation. The legislator has created these regulations, but it is up to the courts to conduct a thorough review of them. Ultimately the judge will have the final say. If the (European) legislator does not pay enough attention to the protection of fundamental rights, then the (European) judge can cast the regulations aside. The Court of Justice of the European Union has previously declared regulations invalid due to privacy violations, for example the Telecom Data Protection Directive and the Privacy Shield. The Dutch courts also regularly invalidate privacy-invading regulations. Privacy First has previously successfully challenged the validity of legislation, for example in the proceedings about the Telecommunications Data Retention Act and in the proceedings against SyRI. Viewed against this background, the lawsuit against the UBO register is considered very promising.
Update 27 September 2021: this afternoon the court session took place in The Hague; click HERE for the pleading of our lawyer (pdf in Dutch). The judgment of the court of appeal is scheduled for 16 November 2021.