On 6th October 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared in the case Maximillian Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner (Case C-362/14) that the “Safe Harbor Agreement” between the EU and the US is invalid.
Until now, the so called “Safe Harbor Agreement” was an agreement signed in 2000 between the US Department of Commerce and the European Union that allowed US-based companies to transfer data from EU to the US and to thus comply with the EU Data Protection Directive of 1995. In 2000, the European Commission had declared that the US provides for adequate safeguards for data protection. The “Safe Harbor Agreement” consisted of data protection principles to which to which US undertakings may subscribe voluntarily. Up to date, 4400 companies transferred data to the US under the “Safe Harbor Agreement”.
The online version of the Court judgment is available online here and the press release of the Court of Justice concerning this case is available here.
What is the background of the case?
Maximillian Schrems, an Austrian citizen, has been a Facebook user since 2008. As is the case with other subscribers residing in the EU, some or all of the data provided by Mr Schrems to Facebook is transferred from Facebook’s Irish subsidiary to servers located in the United States, where it is processed. Mr Schrems lodged a complaint with the Irish supervisory authority (the Data Protection Commissioner), taking the view that, in the light of the revelations made in 2013 by Edward Snowden concerning the activities of the United States intelligence services (in particular the National Security Agency), the law and practice of the United States do not offer sufficient protection against surveillance by US public authorities of the data transferred to that country. The Irish authority rejected the complaint, on the ground, in particular, that in a decision of 26 July 2002 the European Commission considered that, under the ‘safe harbor’ scheme, the United States ensures an adequate level of protection of the personal data transferred.
Mr. Schrems appealed the decision of the Data Protection Commissioner before the Irish High Court. The Court decided to stay the proceedings and to refer questions to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.
The European Court of Justice ruled that the so-called “Safe Harbor Agreement” was invalid because it allowed US government authorities to gain routine access to Europeans’ online information. The court also explained leaks from Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, made it clear that American intelligence agencies had almost unfettered access to the data, infringing on Europeans’ rights to privacy.
What are the next steps following this judgment?
The Court of Justice ruling is effective immediately and declares the current “Safe Harbor Agreement” invalid. This judgment has the consequence that the Irish supervisory authority is required to examine Mr Schrems’ complaint with all due diligence and, at the conclusion of its investigation, is to decide whether, pursuant to the EU Data Protection Directive, transfer of the data of Facebook’s European subscribers to the United States should be suspended on the ground that that country does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data.
What are the practical implications of this judgment for US-based companies who used to transfer personal data from EU citizens to the US under the “Safe Harbor Agreement”?
As we know, the recent Court of Justice judgment declared the “Safe Harbor Agreement” invalid. This means, under a strict interpretation, data transfers concerning personal data from EU citizens to the US cannot rely on the “Safe Harbor” anymore since it has been declared invalid.
Nevertheless, US-based companies should still be able to transfer data from EU citizens to the US by using alternative mechanisms such as standard contractual clauses, binding corporate rules (“BCR”) and derogations. Standard contractual clauses are model clauses that have been issued by the European Commission and are designed to facilitate transfers of personal data from the European Economic Area (EEA) to third countries that are not designated to be ”adequate” for the processing of personal data by the European Commission. The model clauses provide sufficient safeguards for the protection of the privacy of individuals.
“BCR” are internal rules such as a Code of Conduct adopted by multinational group of companies which define its global policy with regard to the international transfers of personal data within the same corporate group to entities located in countries which do not provide an adequate level of protection. To that extent, “BCR” ensure that all transfers are made within a group benefit from an adequate level of protection. Once approved under the EU cooperation procedure, “BCR” provide a sufficient level of protection to companies to obtain authorisation of transfers by national data protection authorities. It should be noted that the “BCR” do not provide a basis for transfers made outside the company group.
As to derogations, the EU Data protection rules include derogations under which personal data can be legitimately transferred to the US on the basis inter alia of:
- performance of a contract [e.g. If you book a hotel in the U.S., my personal data are transferred there in order to fulfil the contract];
- Important public interest grounds [e.g. cooperation between authorities in the fight against fraud, cartels, etc.];
- The vital interest of the data subject [e.g. it means in urgent life or death situations, personal data such as medical records can be transferred internationally in the person’s own interest];
- Or if there is no other ground, the free and informed consent of the individual;
From a pragmatic standpoint, although there is no official “grace period” following the invalidity of the Safe Harbor, US-based companies that transfer personal data from EU citizens to the US cannot be expected to cease such transfers immediately since this would affect numerous business operations.
Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President for the European Commission, who will be charged with carrying out the ruling, and Vera Jourová, EU Commissioner, tried to ease the concerns of companies. Their official press release is available here. They said businesses could still move European personal data to the United States through other mechanisms including standard contractual clauses, binding corporate rules (“BCR”) and derogations.
How will this judgment affect the ongoing discussions concerning the new Safe Harbor Agreement, the EU Data Protection Reform and the EU-US Umbrella Agreement for the law enforcement sector?
Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President for the European Commission and Vera Jourová, EU Commissioner, explained that the European Commission has been in discussions with the US over the past two years to revise the existing Safe Harbor. Negotiations are still ongoing but the aim is “to step up discussions with the US towards a renewed and safe framework for the transfer of personal data across the Atlantic”.
As to the EU Data Protection Reform and the EU-US Umbrella Agreement for the law enforcement sector, they explained that both are well on track and will most likely be finalised this year. The Data Protection Reform which will see the passing of a new EU Regulation to replace the Data Protection Directive aims amongst other things to strengthen the powers of national data protection authorities, which have an essential role in upholding individuals’ rights to data protection. In their view, this is fully in line with the recent Schrems’ ruling.
The EU-US Umbrella agreement differs from the Safe Harbor. It does not itself enable data transfers. Rather, it sets high data protection standards in the area of police and criminal justice cooperation. They explain that the Umbrella agreement will improve the protection of personal data of Europeans in the U.S. as it will make sure that citizens will have recourse to judicial redress possibilities in the U.S. in case of privacy breaches, once the US Congress has adopted the respective draft Bill.
Finally, Mr. Timmermans and Ms. Jourová explained that the European Commission would work with national data protection authorities to ensure that the court’s decision (Schrems’ recent judgment) is carried out in a uniform fashion across the European Union. They concluded saying “As citizens need robust safeguards and businesses need legal certainty; the guidance should help avoid a patchwork of potentially contradicting decisions by the national data protection authorities and therefore provide predictability for citizens and businesses alike”.
What should companies do while the current legal situation is being clarified?
While the new Safe Harbor Agreement is being discussed between the EU and the US and the EU Data Protection Reform is finalised, companies that used to transfer personal data from the EU to the US under the Safe Harbor Agreement should now use alternative mechanisms such as standard contractual clauses, binding corporate rules (“BCR”) and derogations described above. We also suggest that companies seek guidance and approval from the respective national data protection authorities in the countries in which they have business operations.
In addition, if companies, for example, are in litigation in the EU that requires the services of an ediscovery provider or at least they need to process and host EU citizen’s personal data, we recommend that they opt for in-country solutions within the EU so as to comply with EU data protection regulations. In practice, this means for example, that if a German company has to collect data from their employees based in several locations in Germany with the assistance of an ediscovery provider, that data should be processed and hosted in a German data centre so as to comply with strict German and EU data protection regulations. The data should thus not leave the German borders. In our view, the Schrems’ recent judgment reinforces the need to use local solutions so that when data is processed and hosted to carry out electronic searches, data remains within the respective countries of the custodians concerned and above all remains within the EU. If data from the European custodians does have to leave the European Union and needs to be transferred to the US then it will have to be within the framework of the alternative mechanisms described above.
 For further derogations please refer to Article 26 of the Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.