European Commission Tentatively Finds US Commitments ‘Adequate’: What It Means for Transatlantic Data Flows

Mikolaj Barczentewicz —  13 December 2022

Under a draft “adequacy” decision unveiled today by the European Commission, data-privacy and security commitments made by the United States in an October executive order signed by President Joe Biden were found to comport with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If adopted, the decision would provide a legal basis for flows of personal data between the EU and the United States.

This is a welcome development, as some national data-protection authorities in the EU have begun to issue serious threats to stop U.S.-owned data-related service providers from offering services to Europeans. Pending more detailed analysis, I offer some preliminary thoughts here.

Decision Responds to the New U.S. Data-Privacy Framework

The Commission’s decision follows the changes to U.S. policy introduced by Biden’s Oct. 7 executive order. In its July 2020 Schrems II judgment, the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) invalidated the prior adequacy decision on grounds that EU citizens lacked sufficient redress under U.S. law and that U.S. law was not equivalent to “the minimum safeguards” of personal data protection under EU law. The new executive order introduced redress mechanisms that include creating a civil-liberties-protection officer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), as well as a new Data Protection Review Court (DPRC). The DPRC is proposed as an independent review body that will make decisions that are binding on U.S. intelligence agencies.

The old framework had sparked concerns about the independence of the DNI’s ombudsperson, and what was seen as insufficient safeguards against external pressures that individual could face, including the threat of removal. Under the new framework, the independence and binding powers of the DPRC are grounded in regulations issued by the U.S. Attorney General.

To address concerns about the necessity and proportionality of U.S. signals-intelligence activities, the executive order also defines the “legitimate objectives” in pursuit of which such activities can be conducted. These activities would, according to the order, be conducted with the goal of “achieving a proper balance between the importance of the validated intelligence priority being advanced and the impact on the privacy and civil liberties of all persons, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside.”

Will the Draft Decision Satisfy the CJEU?

With this draft decision, the European Commission announced it has favorably assessed the executive order’s changes to the U.S. data-protection framework, which apply to foreigners from friendly jurisdictions (presumed to include the EU). If the Commission formally adopts an adequacy decision, however, the decision is certain to be challenged before the CJEU by privacy advocates. In my preliminary analysis after Biden signed the executive order, I summarized some of the concerns raised regarding two aspects relevant to the finding of adequacy: proportionality of data collection and availability of effective redress.

Opponents of granting an adequacy decision tend to rely on an assumption that a finding of adequacy requires virtually identical substantive and procedural privacy safeguards as required within the EU. As noted by the European Commission in the draft decision, this position is not well-supported by CJEU case law, which clearly recognizes that only “adequate level” and “essential equivalence” of protection are required from third-party countries under the GDPR.

To date, the CJEU has not had to specify in greater detail precisely what, in their view, these provisions mean. Instead, the Court has been able simply to point to certain features of U.S. law and practice that were significantly below the GDPR standard (e.g., that the official responsible for providing individual redress was not guaranteed to be independent from political pressure). Future legal challenges to a new Commission adequacy decision will most likely require the CJEU to provide more guidance on what “adequate” and “essentially equivalent” mean.

In the draft decision, the Commission carefully considered the features of U.S. law and practice that the Court previously found inadequate under the GDPR. Nearly half of the explanatory part of the decision is devoted to “access and use of personal data transferred from the [EU] by public authorities in the” United States, with the analysis grounded in CJEU’s Schrems II decision. The Commission concludes that, collectively, all U.S. redress mechanisms available to EU persons:

…allow individuals to have access to their personal data, to have the lawfulness of government access to their data reviewed and, if a violation is found, to have such violation remedied, including through the rectification or erasure of their personal data.

The Commission accepts that individuals have access to their personal data processed by U.S. public authorities, but clarifies that this access may be legitimately limited—e.g., by national-security considerations. Unlike some of the critics of the new executive order, the Commission does not take the simplistic view that access to personal data must be guaranteed by the same procedure that provides binding redress, including the Data Protection Review Court. Instead, the Commission accepts that other avenues, like requests under the Freedom of Information Act, may perform that function.

Overall, the Commission presents a sophisticated, yet uncynical, picture of U.S. law and practice. The lack of cynicism, e.g., about the independence of the DPRC adjudicative process, will undoubtedly be seen by some as naïve and unrealistic, even if the “realism” in this case is based on speculations of what might happen (e.g., secret changes to U.S. policy), rather than evidence. Given the changes adopted by the U.S. government, the key question for the CJEU will be whether to follow the Commission’s approach or that of the activists.

What Happens Next?

The draft adequacy decision will now be scrutinized by EU and national officials. It remains to be seen what will be the collective recommendation of the European Data Protection Board and of the representatives of EU national governments, but there are signs that some domestic data-protection authorities recognize that a finding of adequacy may be appropriate (see, e.g., the opinion from the Hamburg authority).

It is also likely that a significant portion of the European Parliament will be highly critical of the decision, even to the extent of recommending not to adopt it. Importantly, however, none of the consulted bodies have formal power to bind the European Commission on this question. The whole process is expected to take at least several months.

Mikolaj Barczentewicz

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Mikolaj Barczentewicz is a Senior Lecturer in Public Law and Legal Theory and the Research Director of the Law and Technology Hub at the University of Surrey School of Law in Guildford, England.