An important and unexpected ruling was handed down by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on July 16, 2020, in Data Protection Commissioner v Facebook Ireland Ltd and Maximillian Schrems (“Schrems II”) that invalidates the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield (“Privacy Shield”) arrangement. Since 2016, the Privacy Shield provided U.S. companies with a mechanism to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requirements when transferring personal data from the European Union to the U.S.
What this means
Now companies that subscribed to the Privacy Shield must find another GDPR-compliant solution for the transfer of data. The European Data Protection Board indicated in its July 23, 2020 FAQs that it will not be providing a grace period as the authorities had done for the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor (“Safe Harbor”) framework following the “Schrems I” decision.
Notably, the CJEU’s decision expressly stated that the standard contractual clauses (SCCs) previously promulgated by the European Commission (EC) are still a valid tool for data transfers from the EU to the United States. The SCCs are sets of contractual terms and conditions that the controller and the processor of the data both execute to comply with GDPR’s requirements. However, the CJEU’s decision does not give blanket approval to the SCCs–the decision acknowledged that future challenges to SCCs are permissible by the local data enforcement agency for any EU-member state. For example, an EU-member state might prohibit or suspend exports of personal data from its country under SCCs, if the member state concludes that the SCCs are not or cannot be complied with in the recipient third country (such as the U.S.) because of the member state’s local legal requirements.
The CJEU did not directly reference binding corporate rules (‘BCRs’) which are used for intragroup data transfers and require prior approval of the competent data protection authority. For now, this means that BCRs remain a valid transfer mechanism under the GDPR as BCRs are of a similar nature to SCCs (both are considered an “appropriate safeguard” pursuant to Article 46 GDPR).
For some situations, an alternative is to look to the narrow derogations under Article 49 of the GDPR, such as to perform a contract or base the transfer on the subject’s explicit consent.
What happens next
When the adequacy of the Safe Harbor was invalidated by the CJEU in 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) and the EC had already been negotiating for an updated trans-Atlantic program for many months. With Schrems II, and although the DOC and EC have indicated that lines of communication are open, the discussions are not nearly as advanced. And the issues cited by the CJEU in Schrems II may require some form of legislative and not merely an administrative action to address. As such, the process to revamp the Privacy Shield is unlikely to be concluded any time soon.
The DOC, in a press release in response to the CJEU’s decision, and later in its updated Privacy Shield FAQs, stated that it will continue to administer the Privacy Shield program, including processing submissions for self-certification and re-certification and maintaining the participants’ list. The DOC emphasized that the CJEU’s decision “does not relieve participating organizations of their Privacy Shield obligations.”
The UK’s Data Enforcement Agency also issued a statement advising companies to continue using the Privacy Shield until new guidance becomes available but added that companies “do not start using the Privacy Shield during this period.”
Stay tuned for more regulatory guidance and other developments in the next few weeks.