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European Court of Justice rules Jehovah’s Witnesses illegally gather personal data

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of going door-to-door and gathering information about family ties and medical conditions has been under scrutiny since 2013.

Vartiotornilehden kansia.
Image: Yle

The European Court Justice has found that Jehovah’s Witnesses' practice of collecting personal information as members go door-to-door to preach is illegal, because members are effectively compiling a personal data register, which should comply with data protection regulations.

The court handed down a preliminary ruling on Tuesday at the request of Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court, which petitioned the EU court for an opinion on the matter in 2017.

The Court found that religious organisations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain a personal register when they process information gathered during their door-to-door ministry.

In practice the court said, this means that as an organisation that maintains a personal data register, Jehovah’s Witnesses should abide by rules that govern the protection of personal data.

In May, the EU introduced new data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation, which among other things, gives consumers greater control over how their data is collected, used and shared with possible third parties.

Although the ECJ has issued a preliminary ruling on the matter, an official ruling is expected from Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court. According to the ECJ, “the role of a national court is to rule on the matter in accordance with the findings of the union’s court.”

A contentious issue

Finland has long considered the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to maintain a personal information register. In 2014, the Helsinki Administrative Court ruled that the religious group’s personal register was not illegal.

However before that in 2013, a data protection board that operated under the Justice Ministry ruled that the practice of collecting personal data violated the law.

The core of the debate centres on whether or not the information collected on behalf of the entire organisation by individual members of the faith as they go door to door constitutes a registry, or whether or not it remains the property of the individual disciples.

Information collected by Jehovah’s Witnesses may include people’s names, addresses and possible relatives, as well as information about medical conditions and personal beliefs.

According to the EU court, such information is not provided voluntarily, making the practice problematic.

The ECJ ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses also collect personal data to determine their missionaries’ operating zones as well as information about persons who prefer not to be visited by the religious group.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have themselves defended the practice by saying that only certain individuals have access to the information they gather, rather than the entire organisation.

The community said that the data collected is not the property of the umbrella organisation, but is recorded in the personal notes of individual volunteers.

JWs: Court ruling complex

On Wednesday, Jehovah’s Witness spokesperson Veikko Leinonen declined to comment on the ECJ’s ruling on the organisation’s information-gathering practices.

He told Yle that the community is taking the ruling very seriously, but wants to examine it thoroughly before adopting a position on it.

“At the moment we are in waiting mode. We are looking into what to do about the decision. We have nothing further to say on the matter,” Leinonen added.

However he said that at a glance, he would describe the court’s ruling as “complex.”

“When you read the ruling, there are many arguments for and against. It is quite impossible and unnecessary to consider the matter on the basis of all these issues,” he declared.

The organisation has continued its door-to-door ministry.

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