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Your CMS and GDPR compliance: What you need to know

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The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European Union regulation setting guidelines for the collection and processing of users’ personal information, and a content management system (CMS) often participates in this data collection.

The goal of GDPR is to give individuals greater control over their personal data, and also to simplify the regulations for international businesses. For any business operating operating a website and CMS, the most important points to understand regarding GDPR are generally as follows:

  • Consent: Businesses must first obtain users' consent before storing and processing their personal data, which explains the ubiquitous “I Accept” overlays on websites.
  • Data minimization: The data collected by your business should be only what you need (e.g., don’t collect home addresses on an email newsletter signup form).
  • Data breach notifications: If your business experiences a data breach, you have 72 hours to notify regulators and possibly affected users.
  • Data transfer: GDPR also governs the transfer of personal data outside of the EU.

Non-compliance with GDPR can be costly. For example, in May 2023, Meta was hit with a record $1.3 billion fine for transferring user data from Europe to the United States, where looser regulations exposed that information to potential snooping. A few months later, TikTok was fined $372 million for its mishandling of childrens’ user data. While the size of these tech giants certainly brings them increased regulatory scrutiny, every business has a responsibility to operate in compliance with GDPR policy – no matter their size.

Introduction: CMS and data privacy regulations

Before GDPR, the EU’s data protection laws were considered the gold standard—but the Internet grew and changed rapidly after those policies were first introduced in 1995. Because of that growth, the policy left critical gaps in addressing how data should be stored, collected, and transferred. GDPR was introduced in 2016, and went into effect in 2018, to address those gaps.

GDPR ushered in an age of more sensitive handling of user data. It forces businesses to think more strategically about the data collected from users, and also adds controls around how that information is stored. Most important, it gives users more control over their personal information—now we have the choice of clicking “I Consent” or “Do not sell my personal data” on just about every website we visit.

Following GDPR’s enactment, several U.S. states introduced their own data privacy measures. This includes the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA). Regardless of what state your business operates, you should review your data collection approaches with a legal expert to ensure compliance with all local and international policies—the GDPR provides a framework, but it is up to each business to interpret and apply it accordingly.

Note that, even if you don’t have a physical location in the EU, as long as you’re offering goods or services to residents there, you fall under the auspices of GDPR policies.

In summary: GDPR FAQs

What is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?

The GDPR is a European Union regulation that sets guidelines for the collection and processing of personal information to give individuals more control over their personal data.

How does GDPR impact content management systems?

GDPR requires content management systems to participate in data collection processes, ensuring they handle personal data responsibly and comply with legal requirements.

What are the key responsibilities of a data controller under GDPR?

Data controllers determine how and why personal data is processed, obtain necessary consents, provide transparency and ensure GDPR compliance, including breach notifications.

What is the role of a data processor in GDPR compliance?

Data processors handle personal data on behalf of controllers, following specified instructions and ensuring the data's security and proper handling.

What does GDPR say about data breaches?

Under GDPR, businesses must notify regulators and potentially affected users within 72 hours of discovering a data breach.

What are the penalties for non-compliance with GDPR?

Non-compliance with GDPR can lead to hefty fines, as seen with Meta's $1.3 billion penalty in 2023 for improper data transfers.

How can a CMS help maintain GDPR compliance?

A CMS can support GDPR compliance by offering robust APIs, secure user and role management and prebuilt components to minimize unnecessary data collection.

Key features of GDPR-compliant CMS

When it comes to GDPR and CMS, the policy sets out responsibilities for data controllers and data processors; it’s helpful to understand those in context, as it sheds light on where the CMS’ responsibility lies.

  • Data controllers determine the purposes and means of processing personal data, including what will be collected and used and how long it will be retained. They also have the primary responsibility for ensuring GDPR compliance. This includes obtaining consent, providing transparency, enabling users to exercise their rights (e.g., get rid of my data please and thank you), and communicating any breaches to regulators and users. 
  • Data processors are any person or business that processes data on behalf of a data controller. 

What this typically means in practice is that your CMS will process at least some of the collected data. This happens when the CMS presents users with content, and users in turn provide personal data—often by taking actions like filling out a form or leaving a comment. The CMS processes that data on behalf of the data controller, who holds the ultimate responsibility to ensure GDPR compliance. Brightspot CMS typically acts as a data processor, with its customers serving as the data controllers; your mileage will vary here depending on your CMS.

All that said, there are a number of CMS features that will help businesses stay inside GDPR’s lines. These include things like:
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Multi-faceted permissions
Just like you wouldn’t give every user in your CMS rights to publish the homepage (at least, we hope you wouldn’t), not everyone should have access to assets that contain sensitive information. A system that allows you to finely tune permission settings, down to even a single asset, will help you keep personal user data secure.
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Flexible integrations
While the CMS acts as a data processor in terms of GDPR, it is often not the only processor involved. The CMS should offer a robust set of integrations (sometimes called “connectors”) to other systems, and if needed, a way to build such an integration custom to your business requirements.
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Robust APIs
Part of conforming to GDPR standards involves moving data around—from the CMS, to the consent management provider, then on to some other system(s), be it advertising, martech, or a print fulfillment database. You’ll want a CMS that supports a robust set of APIs to simplify those data transmissions. 
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Pre-built components
To help with data minimization—effectively making sure you are collecting only the information you need—you can select a CMS that offers pre-built components. For example, allowing your users to place a pre-built contact us form onto a landing page ensures your users don’t accidentally collect more information than necessary. 

Best practices for maintaining compliance in CMS

The cost of non-compliance with GDPR policies can be high, as evidenced by the fines already levied against companies like Meta, TikTok, Amazon and Google.

While most businesses won’t draw as much regulatory scrutiny as those tech giants, there are simple, obvious steps businesses can take to comply with the GDPR regulations.

Here are some best practices for maintaining GDPR compliance with your CMS. Before taking any action, it’s important to understand what GDPR requires and how it applies to your business. Unless you intend on familiarizing yourself with the entirety of the law (it’s 261 pages long, by the way), reviewing your digital strategy through the lens of the EU policy is a must.

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Prioritize security
There are obvious boxes to check here, like implementing common-sense security measures that will protect your users’ data, like encryption and access controls. Another good practice, especially for large, distributed businesses, is employee education, especially any employee who interacts with your CMS. They should understand the importance of GDPR compliance (and how they can contribute to staying within its boundaries).
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Regularly review and update your GDPR compliance approach
If you can, identify an internal GDPR ombudsman of sorts, who can stay up-to-date on changes to the policy—it is an evolving, moving target—and monitor your practices to make sure they remain compliant. A key stakeholder should regularly review the CMS user groups for appropriate access. Last but not least, review and update your business’ privacy policy once a year. (We find the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s a great time to kick off this task.)
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Document your data processing activities
Know what you’re processing through the CMS, such as which content types are collecting personal data—and what kind of personal data. If you can, create and enforce a data minimization policy to avoid accidentally (whether innocently or maliciously) collecting sensitive data. Document who has access to data, where it goes, and so forth.
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Prioritize system upgrades
GDPR compliance is no time to mess around by delaying system updates. Proactively update the CMS, as well as surrounding systems like consent providers. Remember to keep any extensions or plugins up to date as well. (At last check, a popular Wordpress GDPR plugin is running on 800,000 websites.)
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Have a response plan for breaches
GDPR policy allows a business 72 hours to notify regulators and potentially any affected user of a data breach... and that’s not actually a lot of time. Put your response plan together now, not after a breach has happened. Drafting a response plan deserves an article in and of itself (and Brightspot has even done a webinar on exactly that topic should you need it), but the general steps are to identify, contain, and assess the impact. Only then can you begin to notify the appropriate parties and begin to implement preventative measures. Holding a yearly dress rehearsal to stress test your response plan is also advisable.

Conclusion: Staying compliant in the digital age

In today’s interconnected age, data flows like never before. And the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) marked a pivotal shift in how digital businesses must approach user privacy. GDPR has made the ethical handling and transmission of that data more important than ever; it compels businesses to reevaluate their approach to handling sensitive information. And that’s for the good of users everywhere.

Beyond mere legal obligations, GDPR represents a commitment to fostering trust and transparency in the digital ecosystem. As businesses navigate the complexities of compliance, embracing simple best practices becomes more important than ever before. If your business prioritizes security measures, remains vigilant with system updates and cultivates a culture of accountability with your CMS users, you can both mitigate risks and rest easily, knowing your handling user data with high integrity. In this dynamic environment, where technology intersects with regulation, GDPR compliance isn't something you can cross off your to-do list once and be done with—it's a continuous evolution.

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