The Safe Harbor Decision (And What Is Wrong With It)

As most people and businesses on either side of the Atlantic are now aware, on October 6, 2015 the European Court of Justice invalidated the Commission’s Safe Harbor decision and made the transfer of personal data to the United States slightly more difficult for businesses.

The Court decision is based on two fundamental findings: first, the Commission’s Safe Harbor decision did not find – as it was required to do according to the Court – that the United States ensures a level of protection of fundamental rights essentially equivalent to that guaranteed within the European Union. Second, and equally important, the Court held that the Commission had no authority to restrict the powers of national data protection authorities to examine complaints of their citizens and assess whether the transfer of data to the United States affords an adequate level of protection.

Until the recent Court decision, the Safe Harbor program has provided a framework for the transfer of personal data from the European Union to the United States. Safe Harbor, however, is neither the only way to transfer personal data to the United States, nor the most commonly used. United States undertakings have consistently used – and will be able to continue to use even after the Court’s decision – model clauses and binding corporate rules.

As European and US undertakings have a wide variety of tools available to transfer data to the United States, the most troubling finding of the Court’s decision is not the invalidation of the Safe Harbor per se, but rather the recognition of much broader powers to member states’ data protection authorities. While the Safe Harbor scheme provided a single and simplified framework that was easily understood by United States’ businesses, the new decision leaves uncertainty as to the approach that each member state’s data protection authorities will take in connection with the export of their citizens’ data. As a consequence, in spite of the current efforts by European authorities to adopt a single data protection regulation ensuring a more uniform legislation throughout the continent, the Court decision is likely to lead – for at least some time – to a more fragmented and less clear legal framework among different member states.

Last, but not least, it is worth noting that one of the main reasons that led the Court to invalidate the Safe Harbor Commission’s decision has been the discovery of mass surveillance programs by US national security intelligence agencies and their rights to access personal data of European citizens. The concern of the European Court of Justice is well grounded and all of us, as individuals, are likely to share that same concern. However, why is the Court not equally worried about the surveillance programs and data retention policies adopted by several member states over the last few years?

Many have pointed out (see for instance here and here) that the Court decision is the result of different sensitivities between US and European people when it comes to the protection of their privacy, being the Europeans more keen to consider the protection of their personal data as a fundamental human right (or, rather, very keen on teaching data protection lessons to the United States). However, the failure of the European Court of Justice to acknowledge that such fundamental right is as much at risk within the borders of Europe as it is outside leaves us wondering whether the Court is really protecting the substance of our privacy as European citizens.

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