The Court of Justice of the EU on 22 November emphatically struck down the public accessibility of the Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO) register. The general public having access to information on beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities constitutes a serious breach of privacy. In a principled ruling, the 15 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court explain that the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing is primarily a matter for public authorities. The fight against money laundering does not justify making a register containing privacy-sensitive data public to everyone, the highest European court stated. The entire text of this landmark decision can be found here.
Privacy First very much welcomes the critical and principled ruling by the Court of Justice. It provides a substantive ruling on the questions that Privacy First previously raised about the UBO register.
In early 2021, Privacy First filed summary proceedings against the UBO register, insisting that the Dutch court would take the case to the EU Court of Justice. The Dutch judge subsequently declined to do so because a similar Luxembourg case had just been submitted to the Court of Justice. The preliminary injunction court did however confirm that there is every reason to doubt the validity of the European Money Laundering Directives that form the basis of the UBO register. The judge ruled that the possibility could not be excluded that the highest European court would conclude that the public nature of the UBO register is not in line with the principle of proportionality. This judgment was upheld on appeal.
‘The introduction of the UBO register would mean that privacy-sensitive data of millions of people will be up for grabs’, Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys commented at the time. ‘On all sides there are strong doubts whether this is actually an effective means in the fight against money laundering and terrorism. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the European Union will eventually adjudicate the case, and I expect it will annul the UBO register.’
This is indeed what happened last week. The public character of the UBO register is off the table. The main considerations of the EU Court of Justice ruling can be summarized as follows:
Making UBO data available to the public is a serious intrusion into the privacy of UBOs. Based on the information from the UBO register, a profile can be created that includes certain personal identification data, details on the person’s financial situation as well as the economic sectors, countries and specific companies in which they have invested. A freely accessible UBO register makes these data available to an unlimited number of individuals, including those who wish to view it for reasons that need not be related to anti-money laundering regulations. Not only are the UBO data freely accessible to anyone, it can also be stored and further disseminated by third parties, making it increasingly difficult or even illusory for UBOs to defend themselves against improper use.
Combatting money laundering and terrorist financing is a public interest objective that may justify the privacy intrusion that arises with a UBO register, but this does not mean without question that everyone should have access to that register.
The EU Court explains that the following questions must be assessed in this context:
1. Is the public accessibility of the UBO register an appropriate tool in the fight against money laundering?
2. Does the intrusion on the privacy of UBOs through public access meet the requirement of subsidiarity and is the public access limited to what is strictly necessary? In other words, can the fight against money laundering not reasonably be carried out just as effectively in another way that less affects the fundamental rights of the individuals concerned?
3. Is the privacy intrusion resulting from full disclosure of the UBO register proportionate, when weighing the importance of combatting money laundering on the one hand and the seriousness of the privacy intrusion on the other?
The first of these questions was addressed by the Court of Justice only briefly: a publicly accessible UBO register may, through the resulting transparency, contribute to an environment that is less likely to be used for money laundering. But with regard to the other two questions, the public nature of the UBO register does not meet the requirements to be imposed.
The Court’s answer to the second question is that the privacy violation that is the consequence of full disclosure of the UBO register is not strictly necessary. A previous version of the anti-money laundering regulations stated that ‘persons or organizations that can demonstrate a legitimate interest’ can have access to the UBO register. In its ruling, the Court specified the groups that may have such a legitimate interest:
a. the press and civil society organizations concerned with preventing and combatting money laundering and terrorist financing;
b. individuals who want to know the identity of a UBO in the context of a potential financial transaction; and
c. financial institutions and authorities involved in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.
The European Commission indicated earlier that it is difficult to give a legal definition of the concept of ‘legitimate interest’. The Court, however, found this too short-sighted: the fact that it is difficult to define this concept does not justify giving access to everyone. And so the public accessibility of the UBO register was cast aside, because the invasion of UBO’s privacy is not limited to what is strictly necessary.
In answering the third question, as to the proportionality of the privacy invasion in relation to the importance of anti-money laundering objectives, the Court also allows privacy to prevail. The fight against money laundering and terrorist financing is primarily a task of governments and financial institutions, which already had full access to the UBO register. Extending access to the UBO register to the entire public results in a significantly greater invasion of privacy, without being offset by benefits in the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing.
For the Netherlands, this means that the UBO register may no longer be publicly accessible with immediate effect. Immediately after this ruling, Privacy First called on the Dutch Minister of Finance to comply with the Court’s decision as soon as possible. On the very day of the ruling this call was heeded and an end was put to the public accessibility of the UBO register. This is a major victory for privacy. The goal of the lawsuit that Privacy First started in 2021 has thus been achieved. The UBO register is no longer publicly accessible. In the event the Dutch government fails to comply with this ruling, Privacy First will start new summary proceedings to enforce the EU Court ruling.
There will possibly be a discussion about the delineation of the group of persons who have access to the UBO register on the basis of a ‘legitimate interest’. This discussion is best conducted at the EU level, as anti-money laundering rules are also EU rules. This will also allow the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) to get involved in the substance of this matter. This independent supervisor already in 2017 advised that public accessibility of the UBO register would not be proportionate.
Unfortunately, the European legislature did not heed that advice at the time. It happens more often that the European legislator drafts rules that are a major violation of privacy, which, years later, the highest European court indeed confirms to be the case. It is good that the European Court of Justice is critical and weighs the importance of privacy. After all, the courts have the final say in any democracy under the rule of law, and the EU Court of Justice’s Grand Chamber has ruled in favor of privacy time and again in recent years. But it would be even better if regulators themselves valued the importance of privacy protection as it would mean governments would not commit as many privacy violations in the first place.