In the new ruling, the Grand Chamber, effectively the final appellate division within the European Court of Human Rights, dialed that back.
In an 11 to 6 ruling, it found that Mr. Barbulescuâs privacy rights had been violated.
âTodayâs ruling is fairly clear in how it outlines the parameters of monitoring employees,â said Stephen Ravenscroft, a London-based partner specializing in employment law at White & Case, a law firm. âIt wonât be sufficient for employers to have a general policy permitting monitoring â the policy will need to be much more detailed, outlining why, how and where employees may be monitored and explaining how any information gathered through monitoring may be used.â
Although a colleague at the Romanian company had been fired for using her work computer, phone and photocopier for personal purposes, the court found that Mr. Barbulescu had ânot been informed in advance of the extent and nature of his employerâs monitoring, or the possibility that the employer might have access to the actual contents of his messages,â it said in its ruling.
Furthermore, the chamber found, Romanian courts did not sufficiently examine the companyâs need to read the entirety of Mr. Barbulescuâs messages, or the seriousness of the consequences of the monitoring, which resulted in dismissal.
It noted that only a few countries in Europe â Austria, Britain, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Slovakia â have explicitly regulated the issue of workplace privacy through domestic legislation. Most countries in the region do, however, require employers to give prior notice of monitoring. In countries like Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, employers may monitor emails marked by employees as âprivate,â but may not look at the content without permission.
The chamber ruled that countries should ensure that companiesâ efforts to monitor employeesâ communications are âaccompanied by adequate and sufficient safeguards against abuse.â
The latest ruling in the case, Barbulescu v. Romania, applies to the 47 members of the Council of Europe, which includes nearly every country on the Continent, including Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. (The Council of Europe, which focuses on human rights, is separate from the European Union and is not to be confused with the European Council, one of the blocâs governing bodies.)
In a dissent, six judges wrote that the Romanian courts had not violated Mr. Barbulescuâs right to privacy. They argued that the Romanian authorities had carried out a âcareful balancing exercise between the interests at stake, taking into account both the applicantâs right to respect for his private life and the employerâs right to engage in monitoring, including the corresponding disciplinary powers, in order to ensure the smooth running of the company.â
In a statement, one of Mr. Barbulescuâs lawyers, Emeric Domokos-Hancu, said the courtâs decision proved that âthe right to privacy in the workplace does exist.â
And, he said, the court had âcorrectly ascertained that a large part of the social, human, professional and personal relations are in fact initiated in workplaces.â
The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which represented the country in court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This was the first case that the court had taken up concerning the monitoring of an employeeâs electronic communication by a private employer.
When it comes to electronic surveillance, the court has focused mostly on government use and collection of personal data, often in the context of criminal law or health care, and not the conduct of private companies.
In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found that Britain had violated the privacy of a secretary at a government-run college in Wales by monitoring her phone calls, email and internet use in 1999.
She had not been notified that her communications might be monitored, and the legal framework at the time wasnât clear. Britain enacted regulations in 2000, giving employers broad power to record or monitor employeesâ communications without consent, as long as they took reasonable steps to inform employees that their communications might be intercepted.
In a case that is pending, an employee of the French national rail company, SNCF, has protested his firing. His employer had found pornography on his work computer, on a hard drive marked âpersonal data.â