Door-to-door evangelism and data protection: Jehovah’s Witnesses v Finland

In Jehovah’s Witnesses v Finland [2023] ECHR 388, the Data Protection Ombudsman had issued an opinion in 2000 that during the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ door-to-door visits, they could only collect personal data with the consent of the individuals in question. An appeal to the Data Protection Board was unsuccessful, and a further appeal to the Helsinki Administrative Court only partially so, holding that, though the applicant community was not the “controller” of the data in question, the express consent of the person concerned was nevertheless required for the collection and processing of such data.

The Ombudsman appealed in 2015 and in 2016 the Supreme Administrative Court adjourned the proceedings to seek a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union. In 2018 the CJEU ruled that in the course of their evangelising Witnesses made at least some of the data collected “accessible to a potentially unlimited number of persons” and that their data-collection was not, therefore, data-collection for private or household use. In 2018 the Supreme Administrative Court quashed the Helsinki Administrative Court’s annulment of the Board’s decision without an oral hearing – which it decided was unnecessary. It concluded that because door-to-door evangelising was organised, coordinated and encouraged by the Jehovah’s Witness community, the community was therefore the data-controller.

The applicants complained that there had not been an oral hearing in the national proceedings and that the ban on them taking notes for their personal use without the explicit consent of those to whom they preached was contrary to Articles 6 (fair hearing), 8 (respect for private life), 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), 10 (freedom of expression), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) read in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 (general prohibition of discrimination).

The arguments

As to Article 6, the Government submitted that the Witnesses had not sought an oral hearing before the Board and that both the Administrative Court and the Supreme Administrative Court had given adequate reasons for proceeding on the papers. An oral hearing would not have produced any evidence that could not have been obtained in writing and neither the credibility nor the assessment of evidence had been of particular significance for the outcome of the case. [45].

The Witnesses argued that it had requested an oral hearing and that the case was sufficiently complex and fact dependent to have warranted one. The facts of the case had been disputed and the Government had not argued that there had been “exceptional circumstances” that justified dispensing with an oral hearing [46].

As to Article 9, the Government maintained that the Witnesses had not been prohibited from taking notes containing personal data linked to their door-to-door preaching activity – but they had to ensure that they processed the data in accordance with the Personal Data Act, for instance, by asking for the consent of the data-subject. That was not an interference within the meaning of Article 9 – but even if it were, it had been prescribed by law and had been necessary in a democratic society in the interests of the protection of the rights and freedoms of others [66]. Data subjects were entitled to trust that their data had not been collected without their knowledge and consent and that they would have access to the data and, if necessary, the right to require that it be corrected or deleted. The consent requirement did not interfere with the core areas of the Witnesses’ freedom of religion or freedom of expression [67] and although the Personal Data Act applied them, it had not restricted their freedom of religion or expression, including their right to impart information and ideas [68].

The Witnesses argued that the interference under Article 9 of the Convention had not been “prescribed by law” because the Supreme Administrative Court had wrongly applied the domestic law and had been wrong to hold that the Witness community as a whole was the “controller” jointly with individual Jehovah’s Witnesses who took notes containing personal data. Any personal data included in a note was not shared with anyone [70]. Nor had the interference pursued a pressing social need: the privacy interests of people whose personal data were noted down were either non-existent or de minimis [71].

The judgment

As to the complaint under Article 6, the findings in the domestic proceedings had either not been contested by the Witnesses or had been explicitly acknowledged: they had admitted that local congregations maintained a “manual filing system” containing personal data about people who wished not to be visited by them and that notes made by individual JWs during their door-to-door preaching “served … as a ‘memory aid’ when revisiting those who show[ed] interest” (see paragraphs 12 and 16 above). Similarly, they confirmed that they kept a territory map which “aimed to enable orderly contact with residents in the community” [56]. There had been no argument about the credibility of the evidence, the decisive facts on which the order was based had not been in dispute between the parties and they had not, therefore, warranted an oral hearing [57]. There had therefore been no violation of Article 6 [57].

As to the complaint under Article 9, the Court accepted that the application of the consent requirement constituted an interference [61]. However, it was undisputed that the interference was “prescribed by law” [83] and the Court held that the interference pursued the legitimate aim of protecting “the rights and freedoms of others” [89]. The core question was whether the interference was “necessary in a democratic society” and whether, in answering this question, the domestic courts struck a fair balance between the Article 9 rights of the Witnesses and the right to respect for private life of data subjects [90].

The Personal Data Act aimed to ensure the protection of the right to respect for private life, including the right to privacy of data-subjects. The Personal Data Act required that the collection and processing of personal and sensitive data met certain requirements, in particular the unambiguous or express consent of data subjects, in conformity with the EU’s Data Protection Directive [92]. Data-subjects therefore had a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to personal and sensitive data being collected and processed in the course of door‑to‑door preaching. The fact that some personal data might be already in the public domain was irrelevant to that [94].

The requirement of consent by the data subject was an appropriate and necessary safeguard to prevent any communication or disclosure of personal and sensitive data inconsistent with the guarantees in Article 8 in the context of door‑to‑door preaching by individual Jehovah’s Witnesses [95] and they had not put forward any convincing arguments as to “how simply asking for, and receiving, the data subject’s consent” could interfere with their freedom of religion [95]; furthermore, the Personal Data Act applied without distinction to all religious communities and religious activities [96]. There had not, therefore, been any violation of Article 9 [99].

The application under Article 8 was dismissed as incompatible ratione personae with the provisions of the Convention and for non‑exhaustion of domestic remedies [112]. The application under Article 14 and Article 1 of Protocol No. 12 was also dismissed for non‑exhaustion of domestic remedies [120].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Door-to-door evangelism and data protection: Jehovah’s Witnesses v Finland" in Law & Religion UK, 9 May 2023,

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