|The focus was on how the U.S. and EU can reach agreement on an arrangement that will not be struck down by the EU’s highest court.|
Last week, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on the now invalidated European Union (EU)-United States (U.S.) Privacy Shield, a mechanism that allowed companies to transfer the personal data of EU residents to the U.S. The EU’s highest court struck down the adequacy decision that underpinned the system on the basis of U.S. surveillance activities and lack of redress that violated EU law. This is the second time in the decade the EU’s top court has invalidated a transfer arrangement, the first being the Safe Harbor system. Given the estimated billions, or even trillions, of dollars in value realized from data flows between the EU and U.S. there is keen interest on both sides of the Atlantic in finding a legal path forward. However, absent significant curtailment of U.S. surveillance and/or a significant expansion of the means by which EU nationals could have violations of their rights rectified, it would appear a third agreement may not withstand the inevitable legal challenges. Moreover, there are questions as to the legality of other transfer tools in light of the Court of Justice for the European Union’s decision in the case known as Schrems II, and the legality of some Standard Contractual Clauses (SCC) and Binding Corporate Rules (BCR) may be soon be found in violation, too.
Consequently, a legislative fix, or some portion thereof, could be attached to federal privacy legislation. Hence, the striking down of Privacy Shield may provide additional impetus to Congress and the next Administration to reach a deal on privacy. Moreover, the lapsed reauthorization of some Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities may be another legislative opportunity for the U.S. to craft an approach amendable to the EU in order to either obtain an adequacy decision or a successor agreement to the Privacy Shield.
Chair Roger Wicker (R-MS) approached the issue from the perspective of international trade and the economic benefit accruing to businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. His opening remarks pertained less to the privacy and surveillance aspects of the CJEU’s ruling. Wicker appears to be making the case that the EU seems to misunderstand that redress rights in the U.S. are more than adequate, and the U.S.’ surveillance regime is similar to those of some EU nations. One wonders if the CJEU is inclined to agree with this position. Nonetheless, Wicker expressed hope that the EU and U.S. can reach “a durable and lasting data transfer framework…that provides meaningful data protections to consumers, sustains the free flow of information across the Atlantic, and encourages continued economic and strategic partnership with our European allies – a tall order but an essential order.” He worried about the effect of the CJEU’s ruling on SCCs. Wicker made the case that the EU and U.S. share democratic values and hinted that the ongoing talks in the committee to reach a federal data privacy law might include augmented redress rights that might satisfy the CJEU.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) spoke very broadly about a range of issues related to data transfers and privacy. She stressed the importance of data flows in the context of larger trade relations. Cantwell also stressed the shared values between the U.S. and the EU and her hope that the two entities work “together on these very important national concerns, trade and technology, so that we can continue to improve economic opportunities and avoid moves towards protectionism.” She also called for federal privacy legislation but hinted that states should still be able to regulate privacy, suggesting her commitment to having a federal law be a floor for state laws. Cantwell also asserted that bulk surveillance, the likes of which the National security Agency has engaged in, may simply not be legal under EU law.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Services James Sullivan blurred the issues presented by Schrems II much like Cantwell did. The CJEU’s decision that focused on U.S. surveillance practices and the lack of meaningful recourse in the U.S. if an EU resident’s rights were violated was merged into a call for like-minded nations to unite against authoritarian nations. Sullivan distinguished between U.S. surveillance and the surveillance conducted by the People’s Republic of China (without naming the nation) and other regimes as if this should satisfy the EU as to the legality and propriety of U.S. treatment of EU personal data. Sullivan stated:
- The Schrems II decision has created enormous uncertainties for U.S. companies and the transatlantic economy at a particularly precarious time. Immediately upon issuance of the ruling, the 5,400 Privacy Shield participants and their business partners in the EU could no longer rely on the Framework as a lawful basis for transferring personal data from Europe to the United States. Because neither the Court nor European data protection authorities provided for any enforcement grace period, Privacy Shield companies were left with three choices: (1) risk facing potentially huge fines (of up to 4 percent of total global turnover in the preceding year) for violating GDPR, (2) withdraw from the European market, or (3) switch right away to another more expensive data transfer mechanism.
- Unfortunately, because of the Court’s ruling in the Privacy Shield context that U.S. laws relating to government access to data do not confer adequate protections for EU personal data, the use of other mechanisms like SCCs and BCRs to transfer EU personal data to the United States is now in question as well.
- The objective of any potential agreement between the United States and the European Commission to address Schrems II is to restore the continuity of transatlantic data flows and the Framework’s privacy protections by negotiating targeted enhancements to Privacy Shield that address the Court’s concerns in Schrems II. Any such enhancements must respect the U.S. Government’s security responsibilities to our citizens and allies.
- To be clear, we expect that any enhancements to the Privacy Shield Framework would also cover transfers under all other EU-approved data transfer mechanisms like SCCs and BCRs as well.
- The Schrems II decision has underscored the need for a broader discussion among likeminded democracies on the issue of government access to data. Especially as a result of the extensive U.S. surveillance reforms since 2015, the United States affords privacy protections relating to national security data access that are equivalent to or greater than those provided by many other democracies in Europe and elsewhere.
- To minimize future disruptions to data transfers, we have engaged with the European Union and other democratic nations in a multilateral discussion to develop principles based on common practices for addressing how best to reconcile law enforcement and national security needs for data with protection of individual rights.
- It is our view that democracies should come together to articulate shared principles regarding government access to personal data—to help make clear the distinction between democratic societies that respect civil liberties and the rule of law and authoritarian governments that engage in the unbridled collection of personal data to surveil, manipulate, and control their citizens and other individuals without regard to personal privacy and human rights. Such principles would allow us to work with like-minded partners in preserving and promoting a free and open Internet enabled by the seamless flow of data.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity and not for the FTC. He extolled the virtues of the “free and open” internet model in the U.S. with the double implication that it is superior both to nations like the PRC and Russia but also the EU model. Phillips seemed to be advocating for talking the EU into accepting that the U.S.’s privacy regime and civil liberties are stronger than any other nation. Her also made the case, like other witnesses, that the U.S. data privacy and protection regulation is more similar to the EU than the PRC, Russia, and others. Phillips also sought to blur the issues and recast Privacy Shield in the context of the global struggle between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Phillips asserted:
- First, we need to find a path forward after Schrems II, to permit transfers between the U.S. and EU. I want to recognize the efforts of U.S. and EU negotiators to find a replacement for Privacy Shield. While no doubt challenging, I have confidence in the good faith and commitment of public servants like Jim Sullivan, with whom I have the honor of appearing today, and our partners across the Atlantic. I have every hope and expectation that protecting cross-border data flows will be a priority for the incoming Administration, and I ask for your help in ensuring it is.
- Second, we must actively engage with nations evaluating their approach to digital governance, something we at the FTC have done, to share and promote the benefits of a free and open Internet. There is an active conversation ongoing internationally, and at every opportunity—whether in public forums or via private assistance—we must ensure our voice and view is heard.
- Third, we should be vocal in our defense of American values and policies. While we as Americans always look to improve our laws—and I commend the members of this committee on their important work on privacy legislation and other critical matters—we do not need to apologize to the world. When it comes to civil liberties or the enforcement of privacy laws, we are second to none. Indeed, in my view, the overall U.S. privacy framework—especially with the additional protections built into Privacy Shield—should certainly qualify as adequate under EU standards.
- Fourth, as European leaders call to strengthen ties with the U.S., we should prioritize making our regimes compatible for the free flow of data. This extends to the data governance regimes of like-minded countries outside of Europe as well. Different nations will have different rules, but relatively minor differences need not impede mutually-beneficial commerce. We need not and should not purport to aim for a single, identical system of data governance. And we should remind our allies, and remind ourselves, that far more unites liberal democracies than divides us.
- Fifth and finally, if we must draw lines, those lines should be drawn between allies with shared values—the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, and others—and those, like China and Russia, that offer a starkly different vision. I am certainly encouraged when I hear recognition of this distinction from Europe. European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski recently noted that the U.S. is much closer to Europe than is China and that he has a preference for data being processed by countries that share values with Europe. Some here in the U.S. are even proposing agreements to solidify the relationships among technologically advanced democracies, an idea worth exploring in more detail
Washington University Professor of Law Neil Richards stressed that the Schrems II decision spells out how the U.S. would achieve adequacy: reforming surveillance and providing meaningful redress for alleged privacy violations. Consequently, FISA would need to be rewritten and narrowed and a means for EU residents to seek relief beyond the current Ombudsman system is needed, possibly a statutory right to sue. Moreover, he asserted strong data protection and privacy laws are needed and some of the bills introduced in this Congress could fit the bill. Richards asserted:
In sum, the Schrems litigation is a creature of distrust, and while it has created problems for American law and commerce, it has also created a great opportunity. That opportunity lies before this Committee –the chance to regain American leadership in global privacy and data protection by passing a comprehensive law that provides appropriate safeguards, enforceable rights, and effective legal remedies for consumers. I believe that the way forward can not only safeguard the ability to share personal data across the Atlantic, but it can do so in a way that builds trust between the United States and our European trading partners and between American companies and their American and European customers. I believe that there is a way forward, but it requires us to recognize that strong, clear, trust-building rules are not hostile to business interest, that we need to push past the failed system of “notice and choice,” that we need to preserve effective consumer remedies and state-level regulatory innovation, and seriously consider a duty of loyalty. In that direction, I believe, lies not just consumer protection, but international cooperation and economic prosperity.
Georgia Tech University Professor Peter Swire explained that the current circumstances make the next Congress the best possibility in memory to enact privacy legislation because of the need for a Privacy Shield replacement, passage of the new California Privacy Rights Act (Proposition 24), and the Biden Administration’s likely support for such legislation. Swire made the following points:
- The European Data Protection Board in November issued draft guidance with an extremely strict interpretation of how to implement the Schrems II case.
- The decision in Schrems II is based on EU constitutional law. There are varying current interpretations in Europe of what is required by Schrems II, but constitutional requirements may restrict the range of options available to EU and U.S. policymakers.
- Strict EU rules about data transfers, such as the draft EDPB guidance, would appear to result in strict data localization, creating numerous major issues for EU- and U.S.-based businesses, as well as affecting many online activities of EU individuals.
- Along with concerns about lack of individual redress, the CJEU found that the EU Commission had not established that U.S. surveillance was “proportionate” in its scope and operation. Appendix 2 to this testimony seeks to contribute to an informed judgment on proportionality, by cataloguing developments in U.S. surveillance safeguards since the Commission’s issuance of its Privacy Shield decision in 2016.
- Negotiating an EU/U.S. adequacy agreement is important in the short term.
- A short-run agreement would assist in creating a better overall long-run agreement or agreements.
- As the U.S. considers its own possible legal reforms in the aftermath of Schrems II, it is prudent and a normal part of negotiations to seek to understand where the other party – the EU – may have flexibility to reform its own laws.
- Issues related to Schrems II have largely been bipartisan in the U.S., with substantial continuity across the Obama and Trump administrations, and expected as well for a Biden administration.
- Passing comprehensive privacy legislation would help considerably in EU/U.S. negotiations.
- This Congress may have a unique opportunity to enact comprehensive commercial privacy legislation for the United States.
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