The French personal data protection agency on Wednesday fined the American company Monsanto for illegally compiling files of public figures, journalists and activists with the aim of swaying opinion towards support for its controversial pesticides.
The company, now owned by German chemical giant Bayer, has failed to notify people on watchlists drawn up as part of a heated public debate over glyphosate, a herbicide.
The CNIL agency fined Monsanto 400,000 euros ($473,000) in the case brought by seven plaintiffs.
Compiling lists of contacts was not illegal per se, the agency said, but only people who “reasonably expected” to be on such lists because of their industry or public reputation should have been included.
In addition, data had to be collected legally and the target groups informed, including their right to refuse to be listed. By keeping the lists secret, Monsanto deprived them of this right, the CNIL said.
Monsanto gave a rating of one to five to each of the more than 200 people on its French lists, which corresponds to their estimated influence, credibility and level of support for Monsanto on various topics, most notably pesticides and genetically modified crops.
The case, first reported by French media Le Monde and France 2 television in 2019, quickly spread to other European countries where Monsanto also kept lists.
Lawyers hired by Bayer – which had acquired Monsanto the year before – said they found nearly 1,500 politicians, journalists and others “mainly within the EU” on “stakeholder lists” maintained by Monsanto’s PR firm FleishmanHillard.
In a report published by Bayer, US-based law firm Sidley Austin added that it had found no evidence of illegal surveillance activity around the checklists.
In a statement sent to AFP on Wednesday, Bayer said the French authority had “significantly reduced” the initial scope of its allegations against the company.
But the CNIL’s ruling still differed from Bayer’s own view that the lists were legal, it said.
FleishmanHillard compiled the lists of people active in the pesticide debate around the time the European Union was considering renewing the license for controversial weedkiller glyphosate in 2016-17.
AFP filed a complaint with the CNIL in 2019 because some of its journalists were on Monsanto’s list, saying it “considers this kind of practice as totally unacceptable”.
The EU decided in 2017 to renew the authorization of the chemical for a shorter than usual period of five years.
Bayer acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018 and immediately became mired in controversy over its agrochemicals.
In May, a US judge rejected a $1.25 billion deal proposed by Bayer to settle future cancer cases involving weedkiller Roundup, saying the deal would be more beneficial to the German company than to those who get sick.
Bayer, who admits no mistakes, claims that scientific studies and regulatory approvals show that glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is safe.