Dispatch from the Global Privacy Assembly: The brave new world of international data transfers
The future of international data transfers is multi-dimensional, exploring new territories around the world, featuring binding international agreements for effective enforcement cooperation and slowly entering the agenda of high level intergovernmental organizations. All this surfaced from notable keynotes delivered during the 43rd edition of the Global Privacy Assembly Conference, hosted remotely by Mexico’s data protection authority, INAI, on October 18 and 19.
“The crucial importance of data flows is generally recognized as an inescapable fact”, noted Bruno Gencarelli, Head of Unit for International Data Flows and Protection at the European Commission, at the beginning of his keynote address. Indeed, from the shockwaves sent by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) with the Schrems II judgment in 2020, to the increasingly poignant data localization push in several jurisdictions around the world, underpinned by the reality that data flows are at the center of daily lives during the pandemic with remote work, school, global conferences and everything else – the field of international data transfers is more important than ever. Because, as Gencarelli noted, “it is also generally recognized that protection should travel with the data”.
Latin America and Asia Pacific, the “real laboratories” of new data protection rules
Gencarelli then observed that the conversation on international data flows has become much more “global and diverse”, technically shifting from the “traditional transatlantic debate” to a truly global conversation. “We are seeing a shift to other areas of the world, such as Asia-Pacific and Latin America. This doesn’t mean that the transatlantic dimension is not a very important one, it’s actually a crucial one, but it is far from being the only one”, he said. These remarks come as the US Government and the European Commission have been negotiating for more than a year a framework for data transfers to replace the EU-US Privacy Shield, invalidated by the CJEU in July 2020.
In fact, according to Gencarelli, “Latin America and Asia-Pacific are today the real laboratories for new data protection rules, initiatives and solutions. This brings new opportunities to facilitate data flows with these regions, but also between those regions and the rest of the world”. The European Commission has recently concluded adequacy talks with South Korea, after having created the largest area of free data flows for the EU with Japan, two years ago.
“You will see more of that in the coming months and years, with other partners in Asia and Latin America”, he added, without specifying what jurisdictions are immediate in the adequacy pipeline. Earlier in the conference, Jonathan Mendoza, Secretary for Personal Data Protection at INAI, had mentioned that Mexico and Colombia are two of the countries in Latin America that have been engaging with the European Commission for adequacy.
However, before the European Commission officially communicates about advanced adequacy talks or renewal of pre-GDPR adequacy decisions, we will not know what those jurisdictions are. In an official Communication from 2017, “Exchanging and protecting personal data in a globalized world”, the Commission announced that, “depending on progress towards the modernization of its data protection laws”, India could be one of those countries, together with countries from Mercosur and countries from the “European neighborhood” (this could potentially refer to countries in the Balkans or the Southern and Eastern borders, like Moldova, Ukraine or Turkey, for example).
Going beyond “bilateral adequacy”: regional “transfer tools”
“Adequacy” of foreign jurisdictions as a ground to allow data to flow freely has become a standard for international data transfers gaining considerable traction beyond the EU in new legislative data protection frameworks (see, for instance, Articles 33 and 34 of Brazil’s LGPD, Article 34(1)(b) of the Indian Data Protection Bill with regard to transfers of sensitive data, or the plans recently announced by the Australian government to update the country’s Privacy Law, at p. 160). Even where adequacy is not expressly recognized as a ground for transfers, like in China’s Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), the State still has an obligation to promote “mutual recognition of personal information protection rules, standards etc. with other countries, regions and international organizations”, as laid down in Article 12 of the PIPL.
However, as Gencarelli noted in his keynote, at least from the European Commission’s perspective, “beyond that bilateral dimension work, new opportunities have emerged”. He particularly mentioned “the role regional networks and regional organizations can play in developing international transfer tools.”
One example that he gave was the model clauses for international data transfers adopted by ASEAN this year, just before the European Commission adopted its new set of Standard Contractual Clauses under the GDPR: “We are building bridges between the two sets of model clauses. (…) Those two sets are not identical, they don’t need to be identical, but they are based on a number of common principles and safeguards. Making them talk to each other, building on that convergence can of course significantly facilitate the life of companies present in ASEAN and in the EU”.
The convergence of data protection standards and safeguards around the world “has reached a certain critical mass”, according to Gencarelli. This will lead to notable opportunities to cover more than two jurisdictions under some transfer tools: “[they] could cover entire regions of the world and on that aspect too you will see interesting initiatives soon with other regions of the world, for instance Latin America.
This new approach to transfers can really have a significant effect by covering two regions, a significant network effect to the benefit of citizens, who see that when the data are transferred to a certain region of the world, they are protected by a high and common level of protection, but also for businesses, since it will help them navigate between the requirements of different jurisdictions.”
Entering the world of high level intergovernmental organizations and international trade agreements
One of the significant features of the new landscape of international data transfers is that it has now entered the agenda of intergovernmental fora, like the G7 and G20, in an attempt to counter data localization tendencies and boost digital trade. “This is no longer only a state to state discussion. New players have emerged. (…) If you think of data protection and data flows, we see it at the top of the agenda of G7 and G20, but also regional networks of data protection authorities in Latin America, in Africa, in Europe”, Gencarelli noted.
One particular initiative in this regard, spearheaded by Japan, was extensively explored by Mieko Tanno, the Chairperson of Japan’s Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC) in her keynote address at the GPA: the Data Free Flow with Trust initiative. “The legal systems related to data flows (…) differ from country to country reflecting their history, national characteristics and political systems. Given that there is no global data governance discipline, policy coordination in these areas is essential for free flow of data across borders. With that in mind, Japan proposed the idea of data free flow with trust at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in 2019. It was endorsed by the world leaders of the G20 Osaka summit in the same year and we are currently making efforts in realizing the concept of DFFT”, Tanno explained.
A key characteristic of the DFFT initiative, though, is that it emulates existing legal frameworks in participating jurisdictions and does not seem to propose the creation of new solutions that would enhance the protection of personal data in cross-border processing and the trust needed to allow free flows of data. Two days after the GPA conference took place, the G7 group adopted a set of Digital Trade Principles during their meeting in London, including a section dedicated to “Data Free Flow with Trust”, which confirms this approach.
For instance, the DFFT initiative specifically outsources to the OECD solving the thorny issue of appropriate safeguards for government access to personal data held by private companies, which underpins both the first and second invalidation by the CJEU of an adequacy decision issued by the European Commission for a self-regulatory privacy framework adopted by the US. While the OECD efforts in this respect hit a roadblock during this summer, the GPA managed to adopt a resolution during the Closed Session of the conference on Government Access to Personal Data held by the Private Sector for National Security and Public Safety Purposes, which includes substantial principles like transparency, proportionality, independent oversight and judicial redress.
However, one interesting idea surfaced among the proposals related to DFFT that the PIPC promotes for further consideration in these intergovernmental fora, according to Mieko Tanno: the introduction of a global corporate certification system. No further details about this idea were shared at the GPA, but since the DFFT initiative will continue to make its way through agendas of international fora, we might find out more information soon.
One final layer of complexity added to the international data transfers debate is the intertwining of data flows with international trade agreements. In his keynote, Bruno Gencarelli spoke of “synergies that can be created between trade instruments on the one hand and data protection mechanisms on the other hand”, and promoted breaking down silos between the two as being very important. This is already happening to a certain degree, as shown by the Chart annexed to this G20 Insights policy brief, on “provisions in recent trade agreements addressing privacy for personal data and consumer protection”.
An essential question to consider for this approach is, as pointed out by Dr. Clarisse Girot, Director of FPF Asia-Pacific, when reviewing this piece, “how far can we build trust with trade agreements?”. Usually, trade agreements “guarantee an openness that is appropriate to the pre-existing level of trust”, as noted in the G20 Insights policy brief.
EU will seek a mandate to negotiate international agreements for data protection enforcement cooperation
Enforcement cooperation for the application of data protection rules in cross-border cases is one of the key areas that requires significant improvement, according to Bruno Gencarelli: “When you have a major data breach or a major compliance issue, it simultaneously affects several jurisdictions, hundreds of thousands, millions of users. It makes sense that the regulators who are investigating at the same time the same compliance issues should be able to effectively cooperate. It also makes sense because most of the new modernized privacy laws have a so-called extraterritorial effect”.
Gencarelli also noted that the lack of effectiveness of current arrangements for enforcement cooperation for privacy and data protection law surfaces especially when it is compared to other regulatory areas, like competition and financial supervision. In those areas, enforcers have binding tools that allow “cooperation on the ground, exchange of information in real time, providing mutual assistance to each other, carrying out joint investigations”.
In this sense, the European Union has plans to create such a binding toolbox for regulators. “The EU will, in the context of the implementation of the GDPR, seek a mandate to negotiate such agreements with a number of international partners”, announced Bruno Gencarelli in his keynote address.
The more than 130 privacy and supervisory authorities from around the world that are members of the GPA are very keen on enhancing and permanentalizing their cooperation, both in policy matters and enforcement, as is evident from the Resolution on the Assembly’s Strategic Direction for 2021-2023 adopted by the GPA during this year’s Conference, under the leadership of Elizabeth Denham and her team at the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. This two-year Strategy proposes concrete action, such as “building skills and capacity among members, particularly in relation to enforcement strategies, investigation processes, cooperation in practice and breach assessment”. The binding toolbox for enforcement cooperation that the EU might promote internationally will without a doubt boost these initiatives.
In a sign that, indeed, the data protection and privacy debate is increasingly vibrant outside traditional geographies for this field, Mexico’s INAI was voted as the next Chair of the Executive Committee of the GPA and entrusted to carry out the GPA’s Strategy for the next two years.
Video recordings of all Keynote sessions at this year’s GPA Annual Conference are available On Demand on the Conference’s platform for the attendees that had registered for the event.