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Contestations of Data, ECJ Safe Harbor Ruling and Lessons for India

The European Court of Justice has invalidated a European Commission decision, which had previously concluded that the 'Safe Harbour Privacy Principles' provide adequate protections for European citizens’ privacy rights for the transfer of personal data between European Union and United States. The inadequacies of the framework is not news for the European Commission and action by ECJ has been a long time coming. The ruling raises important questions about how the claims of citizenship are being negotiated in the context of the internet, and how increasingly the contestations of personal data are being employed in the discourse.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has invalidated a European Commission (EC) decision1 which had previously concluded that the 'Safe Harbor Privacy Principles'2 provide adequate protections for European citizens’ privacy rights3 for the transfer of personal data between European Union and United States. This challenge stems from the claim that public law enforcement authorities in America obtain personal data from organisations in safe harbour for incompatible and disproportionate purposes in violation of the Safe Harbour Privacy Principles. The court's judgment follows the advice of the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) who recently opined4 that US practices allow for large-scale collection and transfer of personal data belonging to EU citizens without them benefiting from or having access to judicial protection under US privacy laws. The inadequacies of the framework is not news for the Commission and action by ECJ has been a long time coming. The ruling raises important questions about how increasingly the contestations of personal data are being employed in asserting claims of citizenship in context of the internet.

As the highest court in Europe, the ECJ's decisions are binding on all member states. With this ruling the ECJ has effectively restrained US firms from indiscriminate collection and sharing of European citizens’ data on American soil. The implications of the decision are significant, because it shifts the onus of evaluating protections of personal data for EU citizens from the 4,400 companies5 subscribing to the system onto EU privacy watchdogs. Most significantly, in addressing the rights of a citizen against an established global brand, the judgement goes beyond political and legal opinion to challenge the power imbalance that exists with reference to US based firms.

Today, the free movement of data across borders is a critical factor in facilitating trade, financial services, governance, manufacturing, health and development. However, to consider the ruling as merely a clarification of transatlantic mechanisms for data flows misstates the real issue. At the heart of the judgment is the assessment whether US firms apply the tests of ‘necessity and proportionality’ in the collection and surveillance of data for national security purposes. Application of necessity and proportionality test to national security exceptions under safe harbor has been a sticking point that has stalled the renegotiation of the agreement that has been underway between the Commission and the American data protection authorities.6

For EU citizens the stake in the case are even higher, as while their right to privacy is enshrined under EU law, they have no administrative or judicial means of redress, if their data is used for reasons they did not intend. In the EU, citizens accessing and agreeing to use of US based firms are presented with a false choice between accessing benefits and giving up on their fundamental right to privacy. In other words, by seeking that governments and private companies provide better data protection for the EU citizens and in restricting collection of personal data on a generalised basis without objective criteria, the ruling is effectively an assertion of ‘data sovereignty’. The term ‘data sovereignty’, while lacking a firm definition, refers to a spectrum of approaches adopted by different states to control data generated in or passing through national internet infrastructure.7 Underlying the ruling is the growing policy divide between the US and EU privacy and data protection standards, which may lead to what is referred to as the balkanization8 of the internet in the future.

US-EU Data Protection Regime

The safe harbor pact between the EU and US was negotiated in the late 1990s as an attempt to bridge the different approaches to online privacy. Privacy is addressed in the EU as a fundamental human right while in the US it is defined under terms of consumer protection, which allow trade-offs and exceptions when national security seems to be under threat. In order to address the lower standards of data protection prevalent in the US, the pact facilitates data transfers from EU to US by establishing certain safeguards equivalent to the requirements of the EU data protection directive. The safe harbor provisions include firms undertaking not to pass personal information to third parties if the EU data protection standards are not met and giving users right to opt out of data collection.9

The agreement was due to be renewed by May 201510 and while negotiations have been ongoing for two years, EU discontent on safe harbour came to the fore following the Edward Snowden revelations of collection and monitoring facilitated by large private companies for the PRISM program and after the announcement of the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).11 EU member states have mostly stayed silent as they run their own surveillance programs often times, in cooperation with the NSA. EU institutions cannot intervene in matters of national security however, they do have authority on data protection matters. European Union officials and Members of Parliament have expressed shock and outrage at the surveillance programs unveiled by Snowden's 2013 revelations. Most recently, following the CJEU Advocate General’s opinion, 50 Members of European Parliament (MEP) sent a strongly worded letter the US Congress hitting back on claims of ‘digital protectionism’ emanating from the US12. In no uncertain terms the letter clarified that the EU has different ideas on privacy, platforms, net neutrality, encryption, Bitcoin, zero-days, or copyright and will seek to improve and change any proposal from the EC in the interest of our citizens and of all people.

Towards Harmonization

In November 2013, as an attempt to minimize the loss of trust following the Snowden revelations, the European Commission (EC) published recommendations in its report on 'Rebuilding Trust is EU-US Data Flows'.13 The recommendations revealed two critical initiatives at the EU level—first was the revision of the EU-US safe harbor agreement14 and second the adoption of the 'EU-US Umbrella Agreement15'—a framework for data transfer for the purpose of investigating, detecting, or prosecuting a crime, including terrorism. The Umbrella Agreement was recently initialed by EU and US negotiators and it only addresses the exchange of personal data between law enforcement agencies.16 The Agreement has gained momentum in the wake of recent cases around issues of territorial duties of providers, enforcement jurisdictions and data localisation.17 However, the adoption of the Umbrella Act depends on US Congress adoption of the Judicial Redress Act (JRA) as law.18

Judicial Redress Act

The JRA is a key reform that the EC is pushing for in an attempt to address the gap between privacy rights and remedies available to US citizens and those extended to EU citizens, including allowing EU citizens to sue in American courts. The JRA seeks to extend certain protections under the Privacy Act to records shared by EU and other designated countries with US law enforcement agencies for the purpose of investigating, detecting, or prosecuting criminal offenses. The JRA protections would extend to records shared under the Umbrella Agreement and while it does include civil remedies for violation of data protection, as noted by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the present framework does not provide citizens of EU countries with redress that is at par with that which US persons enjoy under the Privacy Act.19

For example, the measures outlined under the JRA would only be applicable to countries that have outlined appropriate privacy protections agreements for data sharing for investigations and ‘efficiently share’ such information with the US. Countries that do not have agreements with US cannot seek these protections leaving the personal data of their citizens open for collection and misuse by US agencies. Further, the arrangement leaves determination of 'efficiently sharing' in the hands of US authorities and countries could lose protection if they do not comply with information sharing requests promptly. Finally, JRA protections do not apply to non-US persons nor to records shared for purposes other than law enforcement such as intelligence gathering. JRA is also weakened by allowing heads of agencies to exercise their discretion to seek exemption from the Act and opt out of compliance.

Taken together the JRA, the Umbrella Act and the renegotiation of the Safe Harbor Agreement need considerable improvements. It is worth noting that EU’s acceptance of the redundancy of existing agreements and in establishing the independence of national data protection authorities in investigating and enforcing national laws as demonstrated in the Schrems and in the Weltimmo20 case point to accelerated developments in the broader EU privacy landscape.


The ECJ Safe Harbor ruling will have far-reaching consequences for the online industry. Often, costly government rulings solidify the market dominance of big companies. As high regulatory costs restrict the entrance of small and medium businesses the market, competition is gradually wiped out. Further, complying with high standards of data protection means that US firms handling European data will need to consider alternative legal means of transfer of personal data. This could include evolving 'model contracts' binding them to EU data protection standards. As Schrems points out, “Big companies don’t only rely on safe harbour: they also rely on binding corporate rules and standard contractual clauses.”21

The ruling is good news for European consumers, who can now approach a national regulator to investigate suspicions of data mishandling. EU data protection regulators may be be inundated with requests from companies seeking authorization of new contracts and with consumer complaints. Some are concerned that the ruling puts a dent in the globalized flow of data22, effectively requiring data localization in Europe.23 Others have pointed out that it is unclear how this decision sits with other trade treaties such as the TPP that ban data localisation.24 While the implications of the decision will take some time in playing out, what is certain is that US companies will be have to restructure management, storage and use of data. The ruling has created the impetus for India to push for reforms to protect its citizens from harms by US firms and improve trade relations with EU.

The Opportunity for India

Multiple data flows taking place over the internet simultaneously and that has led to ubiquity of data transfers o ver the Internet, exposing individuals to privacy risks. There has also been an enhanced economic importance of data processing as businesses collect and correlate data using analytic tools to create new demands, establish relationships and generate revenue for their services. The primary concern of the Schrems case may be the protection of the rights of EU citizens but by seeking to extend these rights and ensure compliance in other jurisdictions, the case touches upon many underlying contestations around data and sovereignty.

Last year, Mr Ram Narain, India Head of Delegation to the Working Group Plenary at ITU had stressed, “respecting the principle of sovereignty of information through network functionality and global norms will go a long way in increasing the trust and confidence in use of ICT.”25 In the absence of the recognition of privacy as a right and empowering citizens through measures or avenues to seek redressal against misuse of data, the demand of data sovereignty rings empty. The kind of framework which empowered an ordinary citizen in the EU to approach the highest court seeking redressal based on presumed overreach of a foreign government and from harms abetted by private corporations simply does not exist in India. Securing citizen’s data in other jurisdictions and from other governments begins with establishing protection regimes within the country.

The Indian government has also stepped up efforts to restrict transfer of data from India including pushing for private companies to open data centers in India.26 Negotiating data localisation does not restrict the power of private corporations from using data in a broad ways including tailoring ads and promoting products. Also, data transfers impact any organisation with international operations for example, global multinationals who need to coordinate employee data and information. Companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft transfer and store data belonging to Indian citizens and it is worth remembering that the National Security Agency (NSA) would have access to this data through servers of such private companies. With no existing measures to restrict such indiscriminate access, the ruling purports to the need for India to evolve strong protection mechanisms. Finally, the lack of such measures also have an economic impact, as reported in a recent Nasscom-Data Security Council of India (DSCI) survey27 that pegs revenue losses incurred by the Indian IT-BPO industry at $2-2.5 billion for a sample size of 15 companies. DSCI has further estimated that outsourcing business can further grow by $50 billion per annum once India is granted a “data secure” status by the EU.28 EU’s refusal to grant such a status is understandable given the high standard of privacy as incorporated under the European Union Data Protection Directive a standard to which India does not match up, yet. The lack of this status prevents the flow of data which is vital for Digital India vision and also affects the service industry by restricting the flow of sensitive information to India such as information about patient records.

Data and information structures are controlled and owned by private corporations and networks transcend national borders, therefore the foremost emphasis needs to be on improving national frameworks. While, enforcement mechanisms such as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process or other methods of international cooperation may seem respectful of international borders and principles of sovereignty,29 for users that live in undemocratic or oppressive regimes such agreements are a considerable risk. Data is also increasingly being stored across multiple jurisdictions and therefore merely applying data location lens to protection measures may be too narrow. Further it should be noted that when companies begin taking data storage decisions based on legal considerations it will impact the speed and reliability of services.30 Any future regime must reflect the challenges of data transfers taking place in legal and economic spaces that are not identical and may be in opposition. Fundamentally, the protection of privacy will always act as a barrier to the free flow of information even so, as the Schrems case ruling points out not having adequate privacy protections could also restrict flow of data, as has been the case for India.

The time is right for India to appoint a data controller and put in place national frameworks, based on nuanced understanding of issues of applying jurisdiction to govern users and their data. Establishing better protection measures will not only establish trust and enhance the ability of users to control data about themselves it is also essential for sustaining economic and social value generated from data generation and collection. Suggestions for such frameworks have been considered previously by the Group of Experts on Privacy constituted by the Planning Commission.31 By incorporating transparency in mechanisms for data and access requests and premising requests on established necessity and proportionality Indian government can lead the way in data protection standards. This will give the Indian government more teeth to challenge and address both the dangers of theft of data stored on servers located outside of India and restrain indiscriminate access arising from terms and conditions of businesses that grant such rights to third parties. 

1 Commission Decision of 26 July 2000 pursuant to Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the adequacy of the protection provided by the safe harbour privacy principles and related frequently asked questions issued by the US Department of Commerce (notified under document number C(2000) 2441) (Text with EEA relevance.) Official Journal L 215 , 25/08/2000 P. 0007 -0047 2000/520/EC:

2 Safe Harbour Privacy Principles Issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on July 21, 2000

4 Advocate General’s Opinion in Case C-362/14 Maximillian Schrems v Data Protection Commissioner Court of Justice of the European Union, Press Release, No 106/15 Luxembourg, 23 September 2015

5 Jennifer Baker, ‘EU desperately pushes just-as-dodgy safe harbour alternatives’, The Register, October 7, 2015 

6 Draft Report, General Data Protection Regulation, Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, European Parliament, 2009-2014

7 Dana Polatin-Reuben, Joss Wright, ‘An Internet with BRICS Characteristics: Data Sovereignty and the Balkanisation of the Internet’, University of Oxford, July 7, 2014

8 Sasha Meinrath, The Future of the Internet: Balkanization and Borders, Time, October 2013

9 Safe Harbour Privacy Principles, Issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce, July 2001

10 Facebook case may force European firms to change data storage practices, The Guardian, September 23, 2015

11 Privacy Tracker, US-EU Safe Harbor Under Pressure, August 2, 2013

12 Kieren McCarthy, Privacy, net neutrality, security, encryption ... Europe tells Obama, US Congress to back off, The Register, 23 September, 2015

13 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, Rebuilding Trust in EU-US Data Flows, European Commission, November 2013

14 Safe Harbor on trial in the European Union, Access Blog, September 2014

15 European Commission - Fact Sheet Questions and Answers on the EU-US data protection "Umbrella agreement", September 8, 2015 

16 McGuire Woods, ‘EU and U.S. reach “Umbrella Agreement” on data transfers’, Lexology, September 14, 2015

17 Andrew Woods, Lowering the Temperature on the Microsoft-Ireland Case, Lawfare September, 2015

18 Jens-Henrik Jeppesen, Greg Nojeim, ‘The EU-US Umbrella Agreement and the Judicial Redress Act: Small Steps Forward for EU Citizens’ Privacy Rights’, October 5, 2015

19 Ibid 18.

20 Landmark ECJ data protection ruling could impact Facebook and Google, The Guardian, 2 October, 2015

21 Julia Powles, Tech companies like Facebook not above the law, says Max Schrems, The Guardian, Octover 9, 2015

22 Adam Thierer, Unintended Consequences of the EU Safe Harbor Ruling, The Technology Liberation Front, October 6, 2015

23 Anupam Chander, Tweeted ECJ #schrems ruling may effectively require data localization within Europe,

24 Lokman Tsui, Tweeted, “If the TPP bans data localization, but the ECJ ruling effectively mandates it, what does that mean for the internet?”

26 Sounak Mitra, Xiaomi bets big on India despite problems, Business Standard, December 2014

27 Neha Alawadi, Ruling on data flow between EU & US may impact India’s IT sector, Economic Times,October 7, 2015

28 Pranav Menon, Data Protection Laws in India and Data Security- Impact on India and Data Security-Impact on India - EU Free Trade Agreement, CIS Access to Knowledge, 2011

29 Surendra Kumar Sinha, India wants Mutual Legal Assistance treaty with Bangladesh, Economic Times, October 7, 2015

30 Pablo Chavez, Director, Public Policy and Government Affairs, Testifying before the U.S. Senate on transparency legislation, November 3, 2013 

31 Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy (Chaired by Justice A P Shah, Former Chief Justice, Delhi High Court), Planning Commission, October 2012