The Court of Justice invalidates Decision 2016/1250 on the adequacy of the protection provided by the EU-US Data Protection Shield However, it considers that Commission Decision 2010/87 on standard contractual clauses for the transfer of personal data to processors established in third countries is valid. The General Data Protection Regulation (‘the GDPR’) provides that the transfer of such data to a third country may, in principle, take place only if the third country in question ensures an adequate level of data protection. According to the GDPR, the Commission may find that a third country ensures, by reason of its domestic law or its international commitments, an adequate level of protection. In the absence of an adequacy decision, such transfer may take place only if the personal data exporter established in the EU has provided appropriate safeguards, which may arise, in particular, from standard data protection clauses adopted by the Commission, and if data subjects have enforceable rights and effective legal remedies. Furthermore, the GDPR details the conditions under which such a transfer may take place in the absence of an adequacy decision or appropriate safeguards.
Maximillian Schrems, an Austrian national residing in Austria, has been a Facebook user since 2008. As in the case of other users residing in the European Union, some or all of Mr Schrems’s personal data is transferred by Facebook Ireland to servers belonging to Facebook Inc. that are located in the United States, where it undergoes processing. Mr Schrems lodged a complaint with the Irish supervisory authority seeking, in essence, to prohibit those transfers. He claimed that the law and practices in the United States do not offer sufficient protection against access by the public authorities to the data transferred to that country. That complaint was rejected on the ground, inter alia, that, in Decision 2000/5205 (‘the Safe Harbour Decision’), the Commission had found that the United States ensured an adequate level of protection. In a judgment delivered on 6 October 2015, the Court of Justice, before which the High Court (Ireland) had referred questions for a preliminary ruling, declared that decision invalid (‘the Schrems I judgment’).
Following the Schrems I judgment and the subsequent annulment by the referring court of the decision rejecting Mr Schrems’s complaint, the Irish supervisory authority asked Mr Schrems to reformulate his complaint in the light of the declaration by the Court that Decision 2000/520 was invalid. In his reformulated complaint, Mr Schrems claims that the United States does not offer sufficient protection of data transferred to that country. He seeks the suspension or prohibition of future transfers of his personal data from the EU to the United States, which Facebook Ireland now carries out pursuant to the standard data protection clauses set out in the Annex to Decision 2010/87. Taking the view that the outcome of Mr Schrems’s complaint depends, in particular, on the validity of Decision 2010/87, the Irish supervisory authority brought proceedings before the High Court in order for it to refer questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling. After the initiation of those proceedings, the Commission adopted Decision 2016/1250 on the adequacy of the protection provided by the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield (‘the Privacy Shield Decision’).
By its request for a preliminary ruling, the referring court asks the Court of Justice whether the GDPR applies to transfers of personal data pursuant to the standard data protection clauses in Decision 2010/87, what level of protection is required by the GDPR in connection with such a transfer, and what obligations are incumbent on supervisory authorities in those circumstances. The High Court also raises the question of the validity both of Decision 2010/87 and of Decision 2016/1250.
In today’s judgment, the Court of Justice finds that examination of Decision 2010/87 in the light of the Charter of Fundamental Rights has disclosed nothing to affect the validity of that decision. However, the Court declares Decision 2016/1250 invalid.
The Court considers, first of all, that EU law, and in particular the GDPR, applies to the transfer of personal data for commercial purposes by an economic operator established in a Member State to another economic operator established in a third country, even if, at the time of that transfer or thereafter, that data may be processed by the authorities of the third country in question for the purposes of public security, defence and State security. The Court adds that this type of data processing by the authorities of a third country cannot preclude such a transfer from the scope of the GDPR.
Regarding the level of protection required in respect of such a transfer, the Court holds that the requirements laid down for such purposes by the GDPR concerning appropriate safeguards, enforceable rights and effective legal remedies must be interpreted as meaning that data subjects those personal data are transferred to a third country pursuant to standard data protection clauses must be afforded a level of protection essentially equivalent to that guaranteed within the EU by the GDPR, read in the light of the Charter. In those circumstances, the Court specifies that the assessment of that level of protection must take into consideration both the contractual clauses agreed between the data exporter established in the EU 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 data transferred, the relevant aspects of the legal system of that third country.
Regarding the supervisory authorities’ obligations in connection with such a transfer, the Court holds that, unless there is a valid Commission adequacy decision, those competent supervisory authorities are required to suspend or prohibit a transfer of personal data to a third country where they take the view, in the light of all the circumstances of that transfer, that the standard data protection clauses are not or cannot be complied with in that country and that the protection of the data transferred that is required by EU law cannot be ensured by other means, where the data exporter established in the EU has not itself suspended or put an end to such a transfer.
Next, the Court examines the validity of Decision 2010/87. The Court considers that the validity of that decision is not called into question by the mere fact that the standard data protection clauses in that decision do not, given that they are contractual in nature, bind the authorities of the third country to which data may be transferred. However, that validity, the Court adds, depends on whether the decision includes effective mechanisms that make it possible, in practice, to ensure compliance with the level of protection required by EU law and that transfers of personal data pursuant to such clauses are suspended or prohibited in the event of the breach of such clauses or it being impossible to honour them. The Court finds that Decision 2010/87 establishes such mechanisms. In that regard, the Court points out, in particular, that that 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 and that the decision requires the recipient to inform the data exporter of any inability to comply with the standard data protection clauses, the latter then being, in turn, obliged to suspend the transfer of data and/or to terminate the contract with the former.
Lastly, the Court examines the validity of Decision 2016/1250 in the light of the requirements arising from the GDPR, read in the light of the provisions of the Charter guaranteeing respect for private and family life, personal data protection and the right to effective judicial protection. In that regard, the Court notes that that decision enshrines the position, as did Decision 2000/520, that the requirements of US national security, public interest and law enforcement have primacy, thus condoning interference with the fundamental rights of persons whose data are transferred to that third country. In the view of the Court, the limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities of such data transferred from the European Union to that third country, which the Commission assessed in Decision 2016/1250, 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. On the basis of the findings made in that decision, the Court pointed out that, in respect of certain surveillance programmes, those provisions do not indicate any limitations on the power they confer to implement those programmes, or the existence of guarantees for potentially targeted non-US persons. The Court adds that, although those provisions lay down requirements with which the US authorities must comply when implementing the surveillance programmes in question, the provisions do not grant data subjects actionable rights before the courts against the US authorities.
As regards the requirement of judicial protection, the Court holds that, contrary to the view taken by the Commission in Decision 2016/1250, the Ombudsperson mechanism referred to in that decision does not provide data subjects with any cause of action before a body which offers guarantees substantially equivalent to those required by EU law, such as to ensure both the
independence of the Ombudsperson provided for by that mechanism and the existence of rules empowering the Ombudsperson to adopt decisions that are binding on the US intelligence services. On all those grounds, the Court declares Decision 2016/1250 invalid.
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT (Grand Chamber) 16 July 2020 (*)
In Case C‑311/18,
REQUEST for a preliminary ruling under Article 267 TFEU from the High Court (Ireland), made by decision of 4 May 2018, received at the Court on 9 May 2018, in the proceedings
Data Protection Commissioner v Facebook Ireland Ltd, Maximillian Schrems, intervening parties: The United States of America, Electronic Privacy Information Centre, BSA Business Software Alliance Inc., Digitaleurope,
EDPS Statement following the Court of Justice ruling in Case C-311/18 Data Protection Commissioner v Facebook Ireland Ltd and Maximilian Schrems (“Schrems II”)
he EDPS welcomes that the Court of Justice of the European Union, in its landmark Grand Chamber judgment of 16 July 2020, reaffirmed the importance of maintaining a high level of protection of personal data transferred from the European Union to third countries. The EDPS will continue to strive, as a member of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), to achieve the necessary coherent approach among the European supervisory authorities in the implementation of the EU framework for international transfers of personal data.
This is the second time in almost 5 years that a European Commission adequacy decision concerning the United States is invalidated by the Court. In its judgement, the Court confirmed the criticisms of the Privacy Shield repeatedly expressed by the EDPS and the EDPB. European supervisory authorities will advise the Commission on any future adequacy decisions, in line with the interpretation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provided by the Court.
In the meantime, particularly since the entry into force of the GDPR, a growing number of data protection and privacy laws have been adopted worldwide, including the new Convention 108+ adopted by the Council of Europe. The protection of personal data requires actionable rights for everyone, including before independent courts. It is more than a “European” fundamental right – it is a fundamental right widely recognised around the globe. Against this background, the EDPS trusts that the United States will deploy all possible efforts and means to move towards a comprehensive data protection and privacy legal framework, which genuinely meets the requirements for adequate safeguards reaffirmed by the Court.
The EDPS notes that the Court, while in principle confirming the validity of Standard Contractual Clauses (SCC), provided welcomed clarifications regarding the responsibilities of controllers and European DPAs to take into account the risks linked to the access to personal data by the public authorities of third countries. European supervisory authorities have the duty to diligently enforce the applicable data protection legislation and, where appropriate, to suspend or prohibit transfers of data to a third country. As the supervisory authority of the EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, the EDPS is carefully analysing the consequences of the judgment on the contracts concluded by EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies. The example of the recent EDPS’ own-initiative investigation into European institutions’ use of Microsoft products and services confirms the importance of this challenge.
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