Court of Justice of the European Union invalidates EU-U.S. Privacy Shield; standard contractual clauses survive (for now)
On July 16, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued its opinion in the Schrems II case (Case C-311/18). In its opinion, the CJEU concluded that the Standard Contractual Clauses issued by the European Commission for the transfer of personal data to data processors established outside of the EU are valid. However, the Court invalidated the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield. The ruling cannot be appealed.
In 2015, a privacy campaigner named Max Schrems filed a complaint with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner challenging a global social media company’s use of data transfers from servers in Ireland to servicers in the U.S. Schrems argued that U.S. laws did not offer sufficient protection of EU customer data, that EU customer data might be at risk of being accessed and processed by the U.S. government once transferred, and that there was no remedy available to EU individuals to ensure protection of their personal data after transfer to the U.S. Schrems sought the suspension or prohibition of future data transfers, which were executed by the company through standard data protection contractual clauses (a method approved by the Court in 2010 by Decision 2010/87). The social media company had utilized these standard contractual clauses after the CJEU invalidated the U.S. – EU Safe Harbor Framework in 2015.
Following the complaint, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner brought proceedings against the social media company in the Irish High Court, which referred numerous questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, including questions addressing the validity of the standard contractual clauses and the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield.
CJEU Opinion – Standard Contractual Clauses (Decision 2010/87)
Upon review of the recommendations from the CJEU’s Advocate General published on December 19, 2019, the CJEU found the Decision approving the use of contractual clauses to transfer personal data valid.
The CJEU noted that the GDPR applies to the transfer of personal data for commercial purposes by a company operating in an EU member state to another company outside of the EU, notwithstanding the third-party country’s processing of the data under its own security laws. Moreover, the CJEU explained that data protection contractual clauses between an EU company and a company operating in a third-party country must afford a level of protection “essentially equivalent to that which is guaranteed within the European Union” under the GDPR. According to the CJEU, the level of protection must take into consideration not only the contractual clauses executed by the companies, but the “relevant aspects of the legal system of that third country.”
As for the Decision 2010/87, the CJEU determined that it provides effective mechanisms to, in practice, ensure contractual clauses governing data transfers are in compliance with the level of protection requirement by the GDPR, and appropriately requires the suspension or prohibition of transfers in the event the clauses are breached or unable to be honored. The CJEU specifically highlighted the certification required by the EU data exporter and the third-party country recipient to verify, prior to any transfer, (i) the level of data protection in the third-party country prior to any transfer; and (ii) abilities to comply with the data protection clauses.
CJEU Opinion - EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, (Decision 2016/1250)
The CJEU decided to examine and rule on the validity of the EU – U.S. Privacy Shield. The CJEU determined that because the requirements of U.S. national security, public interest and law enforcement have “primacy” over the data protection principles of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, the data transferred under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield would not be subject to the same level of protections prescribed by the GDPR. Specifically, the CJEU held that the surveillance programs used by U.S. authorities are not proportionally equivalent to those allowed under the EU law because they are not “limited to what is strictly necessary,” nor, under certain surveillance programs, does the U.S. “grant data subjects actionable rights before the courts against the U.S. authorities.” Moreover, the CJEU rejected the argument that the Ombudsperson mechanism satisfies the GDPR’s right to judicial protection, stating that it “does not provide any cause of action before a body which offers the persons whose data is transferred to the United States guarantees essentially equivalent to those required by [the GDPR],” and the Ombudsperson “cannot be regarded as a tribunal.” Thus, on those grounds, the CJEU declared the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield invalid.