Reading the Signs: the Political Agreement on the New Transatlantic Data Privacy Framework
The President of the United States, Joe Biden, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced last Friday, in Brussels, a political agreement on a new Transatlantic framework to replace the Privacy Shield.
This is a significant escalation of the topic within Transatlantic affairs, compared to the 2016 announcement of a new deal to replace the Safe Harbor framework. Back then, it was Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip and Commissioner Vera Jourova who announced at the beginning of February 2016 that a deal had been reached.
The draft adequacy decision was only published a month after the announcement, and the adequacy decision was adopted 6 months later, in July 2016. Therefore, it should not be at all surprising if another 6 months (or more!) pass before the adequacy decision for the new Framework will produce legal effects and actually be able to support transfers from the EU to the US. Especially since the US side still has to pass at least one Executive Order to provide for the agreed-upon new safeguards.
This means that transfers of personal data from the EU to the US may still be blocked in the following months – possibly without a lawful alternative to continue them – as a consequence of Data Protection Authorities (DPAs) enforcing Chapter V of the General Data Protection Regulation in the light of the Schrems II judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU, either as part of the 101 noyb complaints submitted in August 2020 and slowly starting to be solved, or as part of other individual complaints/court cases.
- If you are curious about what the legal process will look like both on the US and EU sides after the agreement “in principle”, check out this blog post by Laila Abdelaziz of the “Privacy across borders project” at American University.
After the agreement “in principle” was announced at the highest possible political level, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders doubled down on the point that this agreement is reached “on the principles” for a new framework, rather than on the details of it. Later on he also gave credit to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and US Attorney General Merrick Garland for their hands-on involvement in working towards this agreement.
In fact, “in principle” became the leitmotif of the announcement, as the first EU Data Protection Authority to react to the announcement was the European Data Protection Supervisor, who wrote that he “Welcomes, in principle”, the announcement of a new EU-US transfers deal – “The details of the new agreement remain to be seen. However, EDPS stresses that a new framework for transatlantic data flows must be sustainable in light of requirements identified by the Court of Justice of the EU”.
Of note, there is no catchy name for the new transfers agreement, which was referred to as the “Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework”. Nonetheless, FPF’s CEO Jules Polonetsky submits the “TA DA!” Agreement, and he has my vote. For his full statement on the political agreement being reached, see our release here.
Some details of the “principles” agreed on were published hours after the announcement, both by the White House and by the European Commission. Below are a couple of things that caught my attention from the two brief Factsheets.
The US has committed to “implement new safeguards” to ensure that SIGINT activities are “necessary and proportionate” (an EU law legal measure – see Article 52 of the EU Charter on how the exercise of fundamental rights can be limited) in the pursuit of defined national security objectives. Therefore, the new agreement is expected to address the lack of safeguards for government access to personal data as specifically outlined by the CJEU in the Schrems II judgment.
The US also committed to creating a “new mechanism for the EU individuals to seek redress if they believe they are unlawfully targeted by signals intelligence activities”. This new mechanism was characterized by the White House as having “independent and binding authority”. Per the White House, this redress mechanism includes “a new multi-layer redress mechanism that includes an independent Data Protection Review Court that would consist of individuals chosen from outside the US Government who would have full authority to adjudicate claims and direct remedial measures as needed”. The EU Commission mentioned in its own Factsheet that this would be a “two-tier redress system”.
Importantly, the White House mentioned in the Factsheet that oversight of intelligence activities will also be boosted – “intelligence agencies will adopt procedures to ensure effective oversight of new privacy and civil liberties standards”. Oversight and redress are different issues and are both equally important – for details, see this piece by Christopher Docksey. However, they tend to be thought of as being one and the same. Being addressed separately in this announcement is significant.
One of the remarkable things about the White House announcement is that it includes several EU law-specific concepts: “necessary and proportionate”, “privacy, data protection” mentioned separately, “legal basis” for data flows. In another nod to the European approach to data protection, the entire issue of ensuring safeguards for data flows is framed as more than a trade or commerce issue – with references to a “shared commitment to privacy, data protection, the rule of law, and our collective security as well as our mutual recognition of the importance of trans-Atlantic data flows to our respective citizens, economies, and societies”.
Last, but not least, Europeans have always framed their concerns related to surveillance and data protection as being fundamental rights concerns. The US also gives a nod to this approach, by referring a couple of times to “privacy and civil liberties” safeguards (adding thus the “civil liberties” dimension) that will be “strengthened”. All of these are positive signs for a “rapprochement” of the two legal systems and are certainly an improvement to the “commerce” focused approach of the past on the US side.
Lastly, it should also be noted that the new framework will continue to be a self-certification scheme managed by the US Department of Commerce.
What does all of this mean in practice? As the White House details, this means that the Biden Administration will have to adopt (at least) an Executive Order (EO) that includes all these commitments and on the basis of which the European Commission will draft an adequacy decision.
Thus, there are great expectations in sight following the White House and European Commission Factsheets, and the entire privacy and data protection community is waiting to see further details.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an observation made by my colleague, Amie Stepanovich, VP for US Policy at FPF, who highlighted that Section 702 of the FISA Act is set to expire on December 31, 2023. This presents Congress with an opportunity to act, building on such an extensive amount of work done by the US Government in the context of the Transatlantic Data Transfers debate.