European Court Cites Privacy Concerns in Blocking Transatlantic Online Data Flow

Thursday, October 08, 2015
Illustration celebrating the 1858 laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable (graphic: Library of Congress)

The European Court of Justice has invalidated an international agreement that allows the sharing of online data between the United States and Europe by Internet companies like Google and Facebook.


The ruling by the court, the highest in the European Union, could affect the flow of digital information such as users’ web search histories and social media updates, though for now Facebook, Google and other companies are conducting business as usual.


At issue is the safe harbor agreement, which was adopted in 2000 and allows American tech companies to compile in the United States data generated by their European clients in web searches, social media posts and other online activities, according to The New York Times.


The European Court of Justice found the agreement to be flawed because it gave U.S. businesses and the federal government routine access to Europeans’ online information.


“The United States safe harbor scheme thus enables interference, by United States public authorities, with the fundamental rights of persons,” the judges said Tuesday, referring to access to European data by American intelligence agencies.


The justices said officials overseeing data protection in each of the European Union’s 28 countries should oversee over how companies collect and use online information of their countries’ citizens.


“The court said leaks from Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, made it clear that American intelligence agencies had almost unfettered access to the data, infringing on Europeans’ rights to privacy,” the Times’ Mark Scott wrote.


Lawyers familiar with the safe harbor agreement said the ruling throws the current arrangement in doubt.


“We can’t assume that anything is now safe,” Brian Hengesbaugh, a privacy lawyer with Baker & McKenzie in Chicago who helped to negotiate the original safe harbor agreement, told the Times. “The ruling is so sweepingly broad that any mechanism used to transfer data from Europe could be under threat.”


Industry executives and trade groups called on the European Commission to complete a new safe harbor agreement with the U.S. The agreement has been in the works for two years.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Data Transfer Pact between U.S. and Europe Is Ruled Invalid (by Mark Scott, New York Times)

EU Court Says Data-Transfer Pact with U.S. Violates Privacy (by Natalia Drozdiak and Sam Schechner, Wall Street Journal)

Growing Anxiety over U.S. Technology Seen in Europe’s Call for Breakup of Google (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Obama Administration Criticizes EU Plan to Avoid NSA Data Surveillance as a Violation of Trade Agreement (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

NSA Revelations Prompt EU Call for Shift Away from U.S. Internet Governance (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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