Shrems II – Groundhog Day, All Over Again
Past is Prologue
One of the keys to the European’s Union data protection regime has been the prohibition against transferring personal data from EU countries to jurisdictions that do not have regimes that, in the determination of the EU, provide adequate protection to consumers. Beginning in 2000 the U.S. – EU Safe Harbor Framework allowed U.S. companies to certify their compliance with EU data protection requirements, and facilitated the transfer of data between the EU and the U.S. On October 6, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Union’s highest court, overturned the Safe Harbor Framework. In response, the EU and the U.S., primarily through the Department of Commerce, developed International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, commonly called the “Privacy Shield,” and a more robust framework was adopted, allowing substantially the benefits of the Safe Harbor.
On July 16, 2020, the CJEU held that the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield arrangement — which includes more than 53,000 participating companies — is invalid. The CJEU said in a press release that, in the court’s view, “the limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by U.S. public authorities … are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law, by the principle of proportionality, in so far as the surveillance programmes based on those provisions are not limited to what is strictly necessary.” The Court also said that the United States ombudsman is neither independent enough, nor has adequate authority, to provide an effective cause of action to guarantee the protections under EU laws and regulations.
In particular, the court said that the ombudsperson mechanism in the U.S. — a role created by the Privacy Shield arrangement — “does not provide data subjects with any cause of action before a body which offers guarantees” at the level of EU law. The CJEU said the ombudsperson, which sits under the U.S. Department of State, is neither empowered nor independent at an adequate level.
Impact of the Decision
Like the invalidation of the Safe Harbor, the rejection of the Privacy Shield is likely to create substantial disruptions in data transfers, a key to international trade, until a resolution is found. It is hard to overstate the significance of this decision. The U.S. Commerce Department estimates that the value of the transatlantic economic market at $7.1 trillion, and that a multitude of companies, large and small, rely on the ability to transfer personal, employee and other data from the EU to the U.S. The impact on individual firms will be wide: Continue reading