Dangerous Harbor: Analyzing the European Court of Justice Ruling

An Austrian graduate student’s lawsuit against Facebook has resulted in the invalidation of a 15-year old data privacy treaty relied upon by thousands of multi-national companies.  On October 6, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), the highest court in the E.U., held that the Safe Harbor framework that allowed companies to transfer personal data from the E.U. to the U.S., including data for cross-border investigations and discovery, is invalid.  The ECJ found that the U.S. does not ensure adequate protection for personal data, primarily because of the access rights that the ECJ said U.S. agencies have.  Although the ruling is immediate, the “sky is not falling,” said Harriet Pearson, a partner at Hogan Lovells.  On October 16, 2015, a group of E.U. member state privacy regulators, the Article 29 Working Party, called for renewed negotiations on a treaty and recommended interim actions for companies.  There will need to be a “transition to a more complex and perhaps a more work-intensive compliance strategy than Safe Harbor had previously afforded companies,” Pearson said.  See also “ECJ Hearing on Safe Harbor Challenges How U.S. Companies Handle European Data” (Apr. 8, 2015).

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