Spotify fined in Sweden over GDPR data access complaint

Music streaming giant Spotify is facing a fine of around €5 million ($5.4M) in Sweden years after it was accused of breaching the data access rights of users in the European Union by not providing full information about personal data it processes in response to individual requests.

While the size of the fine is unlikely to grab many headlines, the fact it’s finally happened is notable as further evidence of the mountain European users have to climb to get their data protection rights upheld.

The finding of a breach of Article 15 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes more than four years after a complaint was lodged against Spotify by the privacy rights not-for-profit, noyb. The complaint, which was filed at the start of 2019, alleged Spotify failed to provide adequate detail in response to the complainant’s subject access request (SAR).

The complaint argued the music streaming platform failed to provide all personal data requested; did not provide information on the purposes of the processing; nor on recipients; and also did not provide information on international transfers, among other allegations.

While it was originally filed in Austria the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism, which is supposed to streamline case handling where data-processing crosses national borders, meant the complaint got routed to Sweden where Spotify has its main EU establishment. (Another complaint over the same issue which was filed in the Netherlands was also joined to the case in Sweden.)

The complaint then languished undecided for several years as, according to noyb, the Swedish authority undertook a parallel ex officio investigation to which the complainants weren’t party — despite the GDPR stating data controllers must respond to access requests within a month.

noyb ended up taking the Swedish data protection authority (IMY) to court over the lack of a decision. And last year it successfully challenged IMY’s position that the complainant is not a party in procedures, with the Stockholm administrative court holding that complainants have the right to request a decision after six months.

While that litigation is still ongoing (in front of a higher court) the administrative court decision last November ordering IMY to process and investigate the complaint appears to have moved the DPA to issue a decision in the meanwhile.

noyb said today that IMY ordered Spotify to finally provide the full set of data. Although it’s reserving judgement on whether the authority has done everything it asked until it can scrutinize the decision.

In a statement, Stefano Rossetti, privacy lawyer at noyb, added:

We are glad to see that the Swedish authority finally took action. It is a basic right of every user to get full information on the data that it processed about them. However, the case took more than 4 years and we had to litigate the IMY to get a decision. The Swedish authority definitely has to speed up its procedures.

We reached out to the Swedish authority with questions and it sent the below statement — confirming it identified a number of violations by Spotify pertaining to three complaints it investigated. It also described the case as “complex and comprehensive”, saying it not only looked at individual instances of how it handled data access requests but also assessed general procedures.

Here’s the statement in full:

The Swedish Authority for Privacy Protection (IMY) has investigated Spotify’s general procedures for handling access requests and have found some shortcomings related to the information that should be provided to the individual making the request pursuant to article 15.1 a-h and 15.2 of the GDPR and in relation to the description of the data in the technical logfiles provided by Spotify. IMY has issued an administrative fine of SEK 58 million against Spotify for not providing sufficiently clear information to individuals in this regard. The decision includes violations of articles 12.1, 15.1 a-d, g and 15.2 of the GDPR.

IMYs investigation has also encompassed an investigation of what has occurred in three different complaints and here IMY found that Spotify had failed in its handling of requests for access related to two of the complaints examined. The decision in this part includes violation of articles 12.1, 12.3, 15.1,15.3 and 15.1 a-h and 15.2 of the GDPR. In relation to these infringements IMY issues a reprimand.

The case has been a complex and comprehensive case where we, as explained above, have assessed both Spotify’s general procedures for handling individual access requests, as well as how Spotify has acted in a number of individual situations where we have received complaints to the authority. As Spotify has operations and users in several countries, the work has also included cooperation with other data protection authorities in the EU. This cooperation, and the requirements for similar handling across the EU, also meant that, during the course of supervision, we had to change the focus on supervision, which unfortunately delayed processing. The EU cooperation, which came with GDPR, is something relatively new to us and there is ongoing work within the EU to streamline the cooperation – something we see that there is a need for.

Spotify was also contacted for comment. A company spokesperson sent us this statement — confirming it intends to appeal:

Spotify offers all users comprehensive information about how personal data is processed. During their investigation, the Swedish DPA found only minor areas of our process they believe need improvement. However, we don’t agree with the decision and plan to file an appeal.

Five years+ after the GDPR came into application, back in May 2018, enforcement continues to be a patchwork of highly variable outcomes owing to differences of approach and process (and sometimes also resources) across the national authorities tasked with upholding Europeans’ privacy rights.

The complaint against Spotify was actually one of a series of strategic complaints by noyb against music and video platforms that sought to test the application of the law.

noyb argued structural violations of users’ GDPR data access rights were the dysfunctional norm across the eight platforms it tested — namely: Amazon, AppleMusic, DAZN, Flimmit, Netflix, Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube — many of which it found had set up automated systems to respond to users’ SARs that did not provide all the information Europeans have a legal right to obtain.

More than four years on it’s not clear whether noyb’s earlier snapshot of systemic flouting of users’ data access rights is substantially changed or not.

In the case of Spotify, enforcement actually happening — albeit painfully slowly — does appear to have moved the needle.

noyb founder and chairman, Max Schrems, confirmed the IMY decision contains an order to Spotify to comply with access requests. He also suggested the platform has improved its system during the investigation. “We are expecting a full response now,” he said, adding: “So we need to see what they will send and if it’s enough.”

Asked whether Spotify is amending its response protocol to user data access request in light of the IMY sanction a Spotify spokeswoman told us the company has “nothing to confirm at the moment”, but added: “We are always considering and making improvements to the process to improve transparency.”

Schrems also told us noyb has seen movement on three of the other complaints; including a case being closed after the platform in question (Flimmit) fixed its processes during the procedure; a draft decision being issued by the Dutch DPA on Netflix; and DAZN reportedly close to concluding in Austria (before a court).

Beyond that the picture goes dark.

Per Schrems, half of the eight complaints noyb targeted with complaints about data access have resulted in nothing but radio silence from relevant DPAs so far. (The Irish DPA would be the lead for complaints on Apple and Google-owned YouTube; Luxembourg leads on oversight of Amazon; while SoundCloud is based in Berlin — so would likely fall under the city’s data protection commissioner.)

“The rest is still silence – after 4.5 years,” Schrems added. 

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