European court online data ruling welcomed

Tuesday 06 October 2015 22.53
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The case was brought over the transfer of data to the US by the Irish subsidiary of Facebook
The case was brought over the transfer of data to the US by the Irish subsidiary of Facebook
Max Schrems waits for the verdict of the ECJ this morning
Max Schrems waits for the verdict of the ECJ this morning

The Data Protection Commissioner has welcomed a ruling by the EU's highest court which found that a system enabling data transfers from the European Union to the United States by thousands of companies is invalid. 

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon welcomed the judgement saying the court has "reiterated the fundamental importance attaching to the right of individuals to the protection of their personal data".

She said the judgement will now be considered by the High Court and she has instructed the DPC's legal team "to take whatever actions are necessary to bring the case back as soon as practicable before the Irish High Court".

However, the European Commissioner with responsibility for data protection has said that transatlantic data flows can continue despite the ECJ ruling.

Vera Jourova said "there are other safe guards in place", pointing to standard data protection between companies or building corporation protection.

The Commissioner acknowledged that Safe Harbour is invalid, however she added that there were clear rules for international transfers and "they are valid and apply".

Ms Jourova said she knew the ruling was an important one for Ireland however, she said she would not be willing to offer advice to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner in relation to the next step.

The EU plans to press ahead with efforts to revamp transfers of personal data to the US, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said today.

"We have been working with the US authorities to make data transfers safer for European citizens. In the light of the ruling, we will continue this work towards a new and safe framework for the transfer of personal data across the Atlantic," Mr Timmermans told a news conference earlier today.  

"We will come forward with clear guidance for national data protection authorities on how to deal with data transfer requests to the United States in the light of the ruling," he added.

The ECJ ruling relates to a case brought to the Irish High Court by Austrian citizen Max Schrems over the transfer of data to the US by an Irish subsidiary of Facebook.

Max Schrems gives his reaction to Europe Editor Tony Connelly

Analysis: 'Safe Harbour' - What is it and why should we care?

The court said: "This judgment has the consequence that the Irish supervisory authority is required to examine Mr Schrems' complaint with all due diligence and, at the conclusion of its investigation, is to decide whether, pursuant to the directive, transfer of the data of Facebook's European subscribers to the United States should be suspended on the ground that that country does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook said the case is not about the social media giant, but "what is at issue is one of the mechanisms that European law provides to enable essential transatlantic data flows.

"Facebook, like many thousands of European companies, relies on a number of the methods prescribed by EU law to legally transfer data to the US from Europe, aside from Safe Harbour. 

"It is imperative that EU and US governments ensure that they continue to provide reliable methods for lawful data transfers and resolve any issues relating to national security." 

Minister of State for European Affairs and Data Protection Dara Murphy said this afternoon: "The EU and the US must take this opportunity to set robust global standards for the protection of personal data.

"The legitimate and safe use of personal data, and indeed the need for data transfer must always be balanced with strong standards for the protection for personal data.

"The EU and US need to find this balance, one that can command the confidence and trust of both the citizen and business."

In a statement, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said the US was “prepared to work with the European Commission to address uncertainty created by the court decision so that the thousands of US and EU businesses that have complied in good faith with the Safe Harbor and provided robust protection of EU citizens' privacy in accordance with the Framework's principles can continue to grow the world's digital economy". 

A legal expert, meanwhile, has said the European Court of Justice's decision will, in the end, have positive consequences for Ireland.

Simon McGarr, a solicitor with McGarr Solicitors who acted for Digital Rights Ireland, which had an involvement in the case, outlined the likely consequences of the judgment on RTÉ's News at One,.

"We're going to see fewer transfers from the EU to the US and we're going to end up with an extremely large number of announcements in the coming months of additional data centres in the EU and as it happens the most likely place for those centres is Ireland," he said.

Following today's judgement the Safe Harbour case involving Max Schrems and the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner will come back before the High Court here on 20 October.