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The Forthcoming EU Digital Services Act and Private International Law

European ParliamentThe European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee issued on 22 April 2020 a draft report with recommendations to the Commission on a Digital Services Act which, we believe, is of particular interest for private international law (PIL) specialists.

While the document mainly focuses on the approximation of Member States’ substantive laws in the field of digital services, it also includes interesting considerations on PIL.

Background 

In the context of its follow-up to the Digital Single Market (DSM) Strategy, the European Union’s main objective is to ensure the best possible access to the online world for Union citizens and businesses. It requires to adopt rules promoting free provision of digital services while, at the same time, safeguarding fair competition between economic operators and the highest standard of consumer protection as well as personal data protection. Numerous rules covering different aspects of digitalisation, including private-law issues (see for instance, Directive 2019/770 on B2C contracts for the supply of digital content and services and Regulation 2019/1150 on promoting fairness and transparency for business users of online intermediation services), have already been adopted.

A quick look at the DSM Strategy acquis shows that the EU legislator has so far followed a sectorial approach. The e-commerce directive, pioneer in its time to enhance the emerging digitalisation in the field of services, has not been updated since its adoption in 2000. The text creates a common legal framework to ensure the free movement of “information society services”, i.e. economic activities which take place on-line, between Member States. It lays down an “internal market clause” in favour of service providers (also known as country of origin principle), as well as rules on electronic contracts, commercial communications and limited liability of intermediaries.

Today, a majority of experts agree that the liberal regime established by the directive appears outdated in the context of new digital services providers, such as social networks, collaborative economy platforms or online marketplaces (see the Google France case and the Glawischnig-Piesczek case decided by the Court of Justice). The scope of application of the directive, which rests inter alia on the notion of “provider of information society services”, is also widely questioned (see Elite Taxi Case and Airbnb).

Against this backdrop, the European Commission announced the future adoption of a Digital Services Act (DSA) to update the current horizontal regulatory framework. The proposal aims at strengthening the responsibility of online platforms and clarifying rules for the provision of online services.

Private International Law Issues

The treatment of PIL issues within the DSM Strategy is, until now, at best marginal. The European legislator has not said much on cross-border regulation of private-law relationships within the DSM acquis. In most cases, the secondary law limits itself to laying down that it “should be without prejudice to Union law concerning judicial cooperation in civil matters” (see Regulation 2018/302 on addressing unjustified geo-blocking, Article 1(6); Regulation 2019/1150, Article 1(5); Directive 2019/770, Recital 80).

We see this as a major oversight as the digital world is international by nature. First, the implementation of EU PIL instruments in the digital area is far from obvious. PIL is traditionally based on geographical location and connecting factors but online relationships are intrinsically “aterritorial”. Reconsidering EU PIL acquis – without necessarily reviewing it extensively – is essential (see recently Pedro de Miguel Asensio, Conflict of Laws and the Internet, Edward Elgar, 2020, announced here). Second, a coordinated implementation of EU substantive rules and PIL instruments is, in most cases, a prerequisite for the efficiency of the former.

Against this backdrop, the European Parliament draft recommendations provide for a meaningful set of considerations.

European Parliament Draft Recommendations

While the European Commission’s proposal is only expected in the last semester of 2020, the European Parliament (EP) has already started working on the future Digital Services Act (DSA). The EP’s Legal Affairs Committee released  draft recommendations aiming at “adapting commercial and civil law rules for commercial entities operating online” (2020/2019 (INL)). By doing so, the EP wishes to influence the content of the future DSA proposal but also ancillary regulation.

The draft report addresses different issues related to PIL including: (i) the role of EU PIL in ensuring an effective access for Union citizens and businesses to justice, (ii) the status of access rights to data under PIL, and (iii) the coordination between the scope of the future European digital services set of rules and PIL.

Assessment
(i) Access to justice and PIL

The EP proceeds from the fact that contracts concluded by individuals or businesses with online service providers are generally pre-formulated standard contracts, which include exclusive choice of law and forum provisions. This contractual imbalance is likely to affect access to European justice for the co-contracting party, in particular when the service provider is established in a third country. The EP’s position on this issue is welcomed and coherent with the EU fundamental right to an effective judicial remedy (EU Charter of fundamental rights, Article 47; see also for a recent application under the GDPR, Article 78(1) and (2), and Article 79(1)).

It remains to be seen what concrete measures can be promoted in this field. Would it require to create a European forum necessitatis in digital services litigation? Would local courts be allowed, under certain conditions, to remove a jurisdiction clause in favour of a third country “imposed” by a digital services provider. These questions have to be read in connection with the mandatory nature of the forthcoming regulation (see infra (iii)) and perhaps also with the debate on the (non-)validity of a choice-of-court agreement, which aims at circumventing overriding mandatory provisions (from a French perspective, see Cass. Civ. 1re, 22 october 2008, Monster Cable, n°07-15.823).

(ii) Access rights to data and PIL

The second issue deals with PIL implications in the context of cross-border flows of data, closely linked to the provision of digital services. The draft report focuses on access rights to data, probably by reference to Article 15 of the GDPR. The main objective of this provision is to help individuals to understand why and how an operator is using their data. As, most of the time, the processing of data, as well as their transfer, are cross-border, PIL must be implemented. However, it is not always clear which PIL rules, among EU and national set of rules, are applicable, depending on the characterisation of the legal relationship concerned (see on this blog, Martina Mantovani, “Contractual Obligations as a Tool for International Transfers of Personal Data”). Moreover, due to the room for manoeuvre given to Member States by the GDPR for specific processing situations, the European data protection regime may lead to divergent solutions pursuant national laws. This may be detrimental to European individuals and can lead to regulatory competition and law shopping.

Against this backdrop, the EP asks for “clarification” but what does it mean?  The next step should be to increase legal certainty in the designation of the competent jurisdiction as well as of the applicable law in data protection litigation. This requires to review the weaknesses of the GDPR in this respect and start thinking about clear uniform PIL rules in the field. It will be a full-part legislative work, next to the future DSA.

(iii) Geographical scope of EU digital services law and PIL

Regarding the scope of the forthcoming DSA, the EP underlines the “importance of ensuring that the use of digital services in the Union is fully governed by Union law under the jurisdiction of Union courts”. Reference is made here to the mandatory nature of EU secondary provisions vis-à-visthird countries’ law.

This position, supporting the efficiency of EU law, is consistent with the approach taken by the European Court of Justice in the well-known Ingmar case. A similar statement is laid down in secondary law, for instance in the field consumer protection, in order to ensure a mandatory application of EU substantive rules (see Directive 2011/83 on consumer rights, Article 25). The same approach is now followed in some DSM instruments. They “should apply irrespective of the law otherwise applicable to a contract” – by definition, the law of a third country – (see Regulation 2019/1150, Recital 9 in fine; Regulation 2017/1128 on cross-border portability of online content services, Article 7(2) and Recital 25).

By contrast, the e-commerce directive is limited to the European market and does not apply to service providers established in third countries. This is the direct consequence of the internal market clause (Article 3), which can only benefit to European economic operators. However, this geographical limitation is outdated; many digital services providers are now established outside of the EU.

The efficiency of EU DSM substantive law depends on its ability to encompass the global dimension of trade, in particular when it comes to protect European values such as fair competition or the protection of the weaker party. To this end, EU PIL is a key ally.

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