Lorna Woods, Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex
The Court of Justice today handed down the much anticipated ruling on the legality of standard contractual clauses (SCCs) as a mechanism to transfer personal data outside the European Union. It forms part of Schrems’ campaign to challenge the ‘surveillance capitalism’ model on which many online businesses operate: there are other challenges to the behavioural advertising model ongoing. While this case is clearly significant for SCCs and Facebook’s operations, there is a larger picture that involves the Court’s stance against mass (or undifferentiated) surveillance. This formed part of the background to Schrems I (Case C-362/14, discussed here), but has also been relevant in European jurisprudence on the retention of communications data. This then brings us to a third reason why this judgment may be significant. The UK, like the US, has a system for mass surveillance and once we come to the end of the year data controllers in the EU will need to think of the mechanisms to allow personal data to flow to the UK. The approach of the Court to mass surveillance in Schrems II is therefore an indicator of the approach to a similar question in relation to the UK in 2021.
The General Data Protection Regulation provides that transfer of personal data may only take place on one of the bases set out in the GDPR. The destination state may, for example, have an ‘adequacy decision’ that means that the state in question ensures an adequate (roughly equivalent) level of protection to the ensured by the GDPR (Article 45 GDPR). The original adequacy agreement in relation to the United States (safe harbour) was struck down in Schrems I because it failed to ensure that there was adequate protection on a number of grounds, some of which related to the safe harbour system itself, but some of which related to the law in the US, specifically that which allowed mass surveillance. While the safe harbour was replaced by the Privacy Shield under Decision 2016/1250 on the Privacy Shield (Privacy Shield Decision) which improved some of the weaknesses as regards the operation of the mechanism itself, including the introduction of an ombusdman system, little if anything has changed in relation to surveillance.
Another mechanism for transfer of personal data outside the EU is that of SCCs, which are private agreements between the transferor (data controller) and transferee. Article 46(1) GDPR states that where there is no adequacy decision “a controller or processor may transfer personal data to a third country or an international organisation only if the controller or processor has provided appropriate safeguards, and on condition that enforceable data subject rights and effective legal remedies for data subjects are available”. Article 46(2) GDPR lists possible mechanisms including standard data protection clauses. The Commission has produced a model form of these agreements in Commission Decision 2010/87 (SCC Decision).
Following the outcome of Schrems I, Schrems reformulated his complaint to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) about data transfers arguing that the United States does not provide adequate protection as United States law requires Facebook Inc. to make the personal data transferred to it available to certain United States authorities, such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the data is used in a manner incompatible with the right to private life, and that therefore future transfers by Facebook should be suspended. These transfers are currently carried out on the basis of SCCs as approved by the SCC Decision. The DPC took the view that this complaint called into question the validity of that decision as well as the Privacy Shield Decision, which moved the issue back into the courts. The Irish High Court referred the question to the Court of Justice and it is the outcome in this ruling that we see today.
The Advocate General in his Opinion (discussed here) suggested to the Court that the SCC Decision was valid; the problem was the context in which it operated. He took the view that the Privacy Shield’s validity should be considered separately. Crucially, he held that data controllers need to determine the adequacy of protection in the destination state. This in practice is difficult; while a data controller might have some control over what the recipient does with the data (how processed, data security etc), it would have little control over the general legal environment. In any event, data controllers would be required to make specific country assessments on this, which could be challenged by dissatisfied data subjects. The Court took a slightly different approach. It agreed with its Advocate General that the SCC Decision was valid, but it struck down the Privacy Shield.
The Court made a number of findings. The first relates to the scope of inquiry and to competence. Given that national security lies outside the GDPR (and outside EU competence), should questions about the processing of data for purposes of public security, defence and State security be outside the scope of the GDPR rules. Following its position in Schrems I, the Court (like its Advocate General) rejected this argument [para 83, 86, 88]: the transfers of personal data by an economic operators for commercial purposes, even if that personal data is then processed by the authorities of the destination state for national security reasons, remains within the GDPR framework. Exclusions from the regime should be interpreted narrowly (citing Jehovan todistajat (Case C-25/17), discussed here).
In determining the level of protection the GDPR requires, the Court re-iterated its stance from Schrems I and following the reasoning of its Advocate General in this case held that we are looking for a level of protection “essentially equivalent” to that in the EU- and bearing in mind that the GDPR is understood in the light of the EU Charter. So not only must the terms of the SCCs themselves be taken into account but also the general legal environment in the destination State. The Court summarised:
…..the assessment of the level of protection afforded in the context of such a transfer must, in particular, take into consideration both the contractual clauses agreed between the controller or processor established in the European Union and the recipient of the transfer established in the third country concerned and, as regards any access by the public authorities of that third country to the personal data transferred, the relevant aspects of the legal system of that third country, in particular those set out, in a non-exhaustive manner, in Article 45(2) of [the GDPR]. [para 105]
The Court noted that the national supervisory authorities are responsible for monitoring compliance with EU rules, and may check compliance with the requirements of the GDPR (following on from the position under the DPD established in Schrems I), and the national regulatory authorities have significant investigative powers. Where the SCCs are not complied with – or cannot be complied with – the national regulatory authorities must suspend or prohibit transfers and the Commission’s competence to draft SCCs does not restrict the powers of national authorities to review compliance in any way. In this the Court’s approach is broadly similar to that of the Advocate General. As regards an adequacy decision, a valid adequacy decision is binding, until such time as it may be declared invalid; this does not stop individuals from being able to complain.
Applying the principles to the SCC Decision, the Court noted that the standards bind only the parties to the agreement. Consequently, although there are situations in which, depending on the law and practices in force in the third country concerned, the recipient of such a transfer is in a position to guarantee the necessary protection of the data solely on the basis of standard data protection clauses, there are others in which the content of those standard clauses might not constitute a sufficient means of ensuring, in practice, the effective protection of personal data transferred to the third country concerned. [para 126]
Does this possibility mean that the SCC Decision is necessarily invalid? The Court held not. Unlike an adequacy agreement which necessarily relates to a particular place, the SCC decision does not. The SCCs therefore may require supplementing to deal with issues in individual cases. Moreover, the SCC Decision includes effective mechanisms that make it possible to ensure compliance with EU standards [para 137]. Specifically, the SCC Decision imposes an obligation on a data exporter and the recipient of the data to verify, prior to any transfer, whether that level of protection is respected in the third country concerned. The recipient of the data must inform the data controller of any inability to comply with the SCCs, at which point the data controller is obliged to suspend transfers and/or terminate the contract. The SCC Decision is therefore valid; the implications of this in practice for this case were not drawn out. The Court in the end held that
…. unless there is a valid European Commission adequacy decision, the competent supervisory authority is required to suspend or prohibit a transfer of data to a third country pursuant to standard data protection clauses adopted by the Commission, if, in the view of that supervisory authority and in the light of all the circumstances of that transfer, those clauses are not or cannot be complied with in that third country and the protection of the data transferred that is required by EU law, in particular by Articles 45 and 46 of that regulation and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, cannot be ensured by other means, where the controller or a processor has not itself suspended or put an end to the transfer [operative ground 3].
The existence of an adequacy decision is then key. Turning to the Privacy Shield Decision, the Court set the same analytical framework, emphasising the GDPR is understood in the light of the Charter and the rights to private life, to data protection and to an effective remedy. In assessing the decision, the Court noted that it awards primacy to the requirements of US national security, public interest and law enforcement, which the Court interpreted as condoning interference with the fundamental rights of persons whose data are transferred. In the view of the Court, access and use of personal data by US authorities are not limited in a way that is essentially equivalent to EU law – the surveillance programmes are not limited to what is strictly necessary and are disproportionate. Further, data subjects are not granted rights to take action before the courts against US authorities. The Ombudsperson mechanism, introduced by the Privacy Shield Decision as an improvement on the position under safe harbour, is insufficient. The Court therefore declared the Privacy Shield invalid.
The most obvious consequence of this ruling is that of how data transfers to the US can continue? The Privacy Shield is no more, and its demise has consequences for the operations of SCCs in practice. Given the weaknesses in the general legal system from the perspective of the Court of Justice, weaknesses over which the data controller/exporter can have little control, how can the requirements to individually assess adequacy be satisfied? Are there, however, any other mechanism on which data transfers could be carried out?
In this context, we should note how the Court has interpreted the provisions of Chapter V to create a common baseline for standards, despite differences in wording between Arts 45 and 46 GDPR. Article 45 deals with adequacy decisions and it requires that there is “an adequate level of protection”; Article 45(2) then lists elements to be taken into account – notably respect for the rule of law and human rights and “relevant legislation, both general and sectoral, including concerning public security, defence, national security and criminal law and the access of public authorities to personal data”. It was this provision that was interpreted in Schrems I to require a level of protection that is ‘essentially equivalent’. Article 46(1) – which is relevant to the other mechanisms by which transfers may take place, including agreements between public authorities and binding corporate rules as well as SCCs – says something different. Article 46(1) requires “appropriate safeguards” and “enforceable data subject rights and effective legal remedies for data subject”. This is then not necessarily the same – at least in terms of simple wording – as Article 45(1). The Court however has read Articles 46 and 45 together so as to ensure that, as required by Article 44, data subjects’ rights are not undermined. This brings the essential equivalence test across to Article 46 [see para 96] and not just SCCs, but all the other mechanisms for data transfer listed in Art 46(2). More specifically the factors to be taken into account when considering whether there are appropriate safeguards match the list set out in Article 45(2).
The Court also emphasised that the requirements of the GDPR must be understood in the light of the EU Charter as interpreted by the Court itself [para 100]. In this context, the backdrop of the Court’s approach to fundamental rights – specifically the right to private life in Art 7 EU Charter – is significant. The Court in a number of cases involving the bulk retention of communications and location data by telecommunications operators so that those data could be accessed by law enforcement and intelligence agencies found those requirements – because they applied in an undifferentiated manner irrespective of suspicion across the population – to be disproportionate (Digital Rights Ireland and Others, Cases C-293/12 and C-594/12; Tele2/Watson (Cases C-203/15 and C-698/15), discussed here and here). The Court has also criticised the use of passenger name records (PNR) data (Opinion 1/15 (EU-Canada PNR Agreement, discussed here)) and particular the use of automated processing. The Court in its review of the facts referred to a number of surveillance programmes and that the referring court had found that these were not ‘essentially equivalent’ to the standards guaranteed by Article 7 and 8 EU Charter. This would seemingly cause a problem not just for the adequacy agreement, but for an operator seeking to rely on SCCs – or on any other mechanism listed in Art 46(2).
This brings to the forefront Article 49 GDPR, referred to by the Court as filling any ‘vacuum’ that results from its judgment, which allows derogations for external transfers in specific situations, notably that the data subject has consented or that the transfer is necessary for the performance of a contract. While these might at first glance give some comfort to data controllers a couple of words of caution should be noted. First, these reflect the grounds for lawful processing and should be interpreted accordingly. Notably ‘explicit consent’ is a high bar – and all consent must be freely given, specific informed and unambiguous – and it should be linked to a specific processing purpose (on consent generally, see EDPB Guidelines). The ground that something is necessary for a contract does not cover all actions related to that contract – in general a rather narrow approach might be anticipated (see EDPB Guidance).
The final point relates to the UK. The UK perhaps infamously – also has an extensive surveillance regime which has been the subject of references to the Court of Justice (as well as a number of cases before the European Court of Human Rights). Crucially, the regime does have some oversight and there is an independent tribunal which has a relaxed approach to standing. Nonetheless, bulk collection of data is permissible under the Investigatory Powers Act, and it is an open question whether the Court of Justice would accept that this is necessary or proportionate, despite the changes brought in since the Tele2/Watson ruling on the communications data rules. Further, the UK has entered into some data sharing agreements with the US which have given rise to disquiet in some parts of the EU institutions. Whilst a member of the EU it benefitted in terms of data flows from not having to prove the adequacy of its safeguards. From 2021 that will change. In the light of the approach of the Court of Justice, which can be seen as reemphasising and embedding its stance on surveillance, obtaining an adequacy agreement may not be so easy for the UK and given the similarity in approach underpinning Articles 45 and 46 GDPR, other mechanisms for data flow may also run into problems if this is the case. For now, the jury is out.
Photo credit: Security Dive