Oneline Education and Application of EU GDPR

Online Education

In present days, education programs, especially while provided at university and post-degree level, are increasingly more international.

Universities, business schools and other education institutions are now frequently offering masters and other study programs all over the world, not necessarily having schools and premises in every country where courses are offered.

Often, education is in fact provided partially or solely online, through distance learning programs. This is a huge opportunity for students to have access to international programs without having to relocate and for education institutions to expand their reach.

Applying for a distance learning education program implies that the prospective student provides the education institution with personal information concerning him or her. A huge quantity of personal data are therefore processed in this context (e.g. name, address, email, phone number, academic history, etc.), which raises the question of which regulation applies to the protection of such personal data, and in particular, for our purposes, in which cases the European Regulation 2016/679 (General Data Protection Regulation – “GDPR”) applies.

Territorial scope of the GDPR

The scope of territorial application of the GDPR is set out in Article 3 which provides that the regulation applies:

  1. to the processing of personal data in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller or of the processor in the European Union, regardless of whether the processing takes place in the European Union or not; and
  2. to the processing of personal data of data subjects who are in the European Union by a controller or a processor not established in the European Union, where the processing activities are related to:
  • the offering of goods or services, irrespective of whether a payment of the data subject is required, to such data subjects in the European Union; or
  • the monitoring of their behaviour as far as their behaviour takes place within the European Union.

The terms in bold are clarified below:

  • controller” is the subject determining the purposes and means of the processing of personal data while the “processor” is the subject processing personal data on behalf of the controller;
  • establishment” implies the effective and real exercise of activity through stable arrangements (g. branches or subsidiaries);
  • “who are in the EU” it will be up to future case law to interpret its scope, however we can reasonably foresee interpretation as residency or domicile of a data subject in the EU;
  • offering goods or services” is more than mere access to a website or email address, but might be evidenced: by the use of a language or of a currency generally used in a EU Member State with the possibility of ordering goods/services there; by the use of advertising targeting an audience in the EU (for instance paying a search engine to facilitate access by those within a EU Member State); by the use of a top-level domain name other than that of the state in which the company is established (g. or, etc.;
  • monitoring” specifically includes the tracking of individuals online to create profiles, including where this is used to take decisions to analyse/predict personal preferences, behaviours and attitudes or to provide online behavioural based advertising.

Examples of possible application of the GDPR

In light of the territorial scope of the GDPR, herein below few examples of possible application or non-application of the GDPR to education institutions processing personal data possibly also through distance learning systems.



Application of the GDPR to data processing carried out by the organization


Italian university providing courses in Italy, also online, both to EU and non-EU students


UK university providing summer courses in the premises of a local academic institution in France both to EU and non-EU students


Chinese university providing courses in its premises in China also to EU students


Chinese university providing online courses also to students resident in the EU


Chinese school providing language courses in premises located in Germany to German and other EU students


US university providing online masters also to EU students resident in the EU


Australian business school providing online MBA to Chinese students No

US online education platform processing data of EU students for profiling purposes



 GDPR compliance program

In order to comply with the GDPR, should it be applicable, education institutions will need to take numerous steps. The aim of this short paper is not to provide an exhaustive checklist of all the controller’s GDPR compliance activities, but to raise awareness as to the activities required, which can be summarized as follows:

  • designating people in charge for addressing privacy matters within the organization;
  • designating a Data Protection Officer (DPO), while requested under Article 37 of the GDPR (g. the processing is carried out by a public body or the processing operations require regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale) or while considered useful by the organization;
  • drafting an adequate set of privacy policies on the basis of the different processing activities and of the different data subjects (g. resident students, foreign students, clients and suppliers, etc.);
  • defining data retention periods for each processing purpose;
  • collecting from data subjects the consent to the processing of their personal data while there are no other possible/appropriate legal basis for processing (g. a contractual obligation, a legitimate interest, etc.) – the consent of the student’s parents is necessary if the student is below the age of 16 years;
  • preparing and constantly updating a record of processing activities (necessary, under Article 30 of the GDPR, only in case the education organization employs more than 250 persons);
  • implementing appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk;
  • carrying out an assessment of the impact of the envisaged processing operations on the protection of personal data, should Article 35 of the GDPR be applicable (g. in the event that the systematic evaluation of personal aspects based on automated processing, including profiling);
  • preparing training programs for the organization’s employees involved in processing operations;
  • creating a procedure for data breach management;
  • drafting data controller/data processor agreements where processing is carried out on behalf of the education institution by a data processor;
  • adopting appropriate safeguards for transferring personal data outside the EU, as provided by Article 46 of the GDPR.

Additional obligations provided by national law

The GDPR is directly applicable in all EU Member States, however the national laws of each EU Member State may provide for specifications and restrictions of European rules.

For example, specifically with regard to the matter at hand, Italian law on data protection (so called “Privacy Code”, Legislative Decree No. 196/2003), as recently amended by  Legislative Decree No. 101/2018 aimed at harmonizing Italian law with the GDPR, provides the following specific rule on the processing of students’ personal data: in order to facilitate education and the access to employment, also abroad, national education institutions, including private schools and universities, may – upon students’ explicit requests – communicate to third parties, also online, students’ data relating to marks and education results and other personal data, excluding however special categories of data (e.g. data concerning health, political opinions, religious beliefs, etc.) and data relating to criminal convictions.

The above is in any event subject to: (a) the education institution having provided an adequate information notice to the student; and (b) data being processed exclusively for the purposes of facilitating education and the access to employment.


Personal data collected and processed by a university, a school or by any other education institution in the context of its learning programs represent valuable assets: as such, they need to be carefully protected.

A compliance program to the GDPR is certainly a quite substantial commitment for European organizations and for foreign organizations which are subject to the new rules, however these subjects need to be mindful that the business and legal implications deriving from non-compliance with applicable rules may lead to substantial sanctions and to reputational damages.

Milan, 17 September 2018

This note is for information purposes only and it is not to be intended as legal advice. For any further information or to receive advice tailored to your situation, please contact us.


cropped-foto-stefania-sito-web-3.jpg Stefania Lucchetti  foto pietroPietro Boccaccini 

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