Category: EU Commission

EU-UK Trade Deal in light of Data Protection

4. January 2021

Almost fit to be called a Christmas miracle, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) came to an agreement on December 24th, 2020. The Trade Agreement, called in full length “EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement“, is set out to define new rules from the date of the UK Exit from the EU, January 1st, 2021.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, claimed it was a deal worth fighting for, “because we now have a fair and balanced agreement with the UK, which will protect our European interests, ensure fair competition, and provide much needed predictability for our fishing communities. Finally, we can leave Brexit behind us and look to the future. Europe is now moving on.

In light of Data Protection however, the new Trade Deal has not given much certainty of what is to come next.

Both sides are aware that an adequacy decision by the EU Commission is very important with regard to data protection and cross-border data flows. Accordingly, the EU has agreed to allow a period of four months, extendable by a further two months, during which data can be transferred between EU Member States and the UK without additional safeguards. This period was granted to give the Commission enough time to make an adequacy decision. Accordingly, data transfers can continue as before until possibly mid-2021. However, this arrangement is only valid if the UK does not change its data protection laws in the meantime.

With regard to direct marketing, the situation has not changed either: for individuals, active consent must be given unless there was a prior contractual relationship and the advertising relates to similar products as the prior contract. Furthermore, the advertising must also be precisely recognisable as such, and the possibility of revoking consent must be given in every advertising mail.

However, much else has yet to be clarified. Questions such as the competence of the UK Data Protection Authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), as well as the fate of its ongoing investigations, have not yet been answered. As of now, companies with their original EU Headquarters in the UK will have to designate a new Lead Supervisory Authority (Art. 56 GDPR) for their business in the EU.

The upcoming months will determine if questions with high relevance to businesses’ day to day practice will be able to be answered reassuringly.

European Commission proposes draft “Digital Service Act” and “Digital Market Act”

21. December 2020

On December 15th, the European Commission published drafts on the “Digital Service Act” (“DSA”) and the “Digital Market Act” (“DMA”), which are intended to restrict large online platforms and stimulate competition.

The DSA is intended to rework the 20-year-old e-Commerce Directive and introduce a paradigm shift in accountability. Under the DSA, platforms would have to prove that they acted in a timely manner in removing or blocking access to illegal content, or that they have no actual knowledge of such content. Violators would face fines of up to 6% of annual revenue. Authorities could order providers to take action against specific illegal content, after which they must provide immediate feedback on what action was taken and when. Providing false, incomplete or misleading information as part of the reporting requirement or failing to conduct an on-site inspection could result in fines of up to 1% of annual revenue. The scope of said illegal content is to include for example, criminal hate comments, discriminatory content, depictions of child sexual abuse, non-consensual sharing of private images, unauthorized use of copyrighted works, and terrorist content. Hosting providers will be required to establish efficient notice and action mechanisms that allow individuals to report and take action against posts they deem illegal. Platforms would not only be required to remove illegal content, but also explain to users why the content was blocked and give them the opportunity to complain.

Any advertising on ad-supported platforms would be required to be clearly identifiable as advertising and clearly state who sponsored it. Exceptions are to apply to smaller journalistic portals and bloggers, while even stricter rules would apply to large platforms. For example, platforms with more than 45 million active users in the EU could be forced to grant comprehensive access to stored data, provided that trade secrets are not affected, and to set up archives that make it possible to identify disinformation and illegal advertising.

Social network operators would have to conduct annual risk assessments and review how they deal with systemic threats, such as the spread of illegal content. They would also be required to provide clear, easy-to-understand and detailed reports at least once a year on the content moderation they have carried out during that period.

Newly appointed “Digital Service Coordinators” in each EU-Member-State are supposed to enforce the regulation, for example by ordering platforms to share data with researchers who shall investigate the platforms relevant activities, while a new European committee is to ensure that the DSA is applied uniformly across the EU. On demand of the Digital Service Coordinators platforms would have to provide researchers with key data, so they can investigate the platforms relevant activities.

The DMA includes a list of competition requirements for large platforms, so called “gatekeepers”, that have a monopoly-like status. The regulations aim to strengthen smaller competitors and prevent the large gatekeepers from using their dominance to impose practices perceived as unfair. They would neither be allowed to exclusively pre-install their own applications, nor to force other operating system developers or hardware manufacturers to have programs pre-installed exclusively by the gatekeeper’s company. In addition, preventing users from uninstalling included applications would be prohibited. Other common measures of self-preference would also be prohibited. For example, gatekeepers would no longer be allowed to use data generated by their services for their own commercial activities without also making the information available to other commercial users. If a provider wanted to merge data generated by different portals, he would have to obtain explicit consent from users to do so.

The publication of the DSA and the DMA is the next step in the European Commission’s 2020 European strategy for data, following the proposal of the Data Governance Act in November. Like the Data Governance Act, the DSA and DMA aim to push back the dominance of tech giants, particularly those from the U.S. and China, while promoting competition.

Update: The Council of the European Union publishes recommendations on encryption

8. December 2020

In November, the Austrian broadcasting network “Österreichischer Rundfunk” sparked a controversial discussion by publishing leaked drafts of the Council of the European Union (“EU Council”) on encryption (please see our blog post). After these drafts had been criticized by several politicians, journalists and NGOs, the EU Council published “Recommendations for a way forward on the topic of encryption” on December 1st, in which it considers it important to carefully balance between protecting fundamental rights with ensuring law enforcement investigative powers.

The EU Council sees a dilemma between the need for strong encryption in order to protect privacy on one hand, and the misuse of encryption by criminal subjects such as terrorists and organized crime on the other hand. They further note:

“We acknowledge this dilemma and are determined to find ways that will not compromise
either one, upholding the principle of security through encryption and security despite
encryption.”

The paper lists several intentions that are supposed to help find solutions to this dilemma.

First, it directly addresses EU institutions, agencies, and member states, asking them to coordinate their efforts in developing technical, legal and operational solutions. Part of this cooperation is supposed to be the joint implementation of standardized high-quality training programs for law enforcement officers that are tailored to the skilled criminal environment. International cooperation, particularly with the initiators of the “International Statement: End-to-End Encryption and Public Safety“, is proclaimed as a further intention.

Next the technology industry, civil society and academic world are acknowledged as important partners with whom EU institutions shall establish a permanent dialogue. The recommendations address internet service providers and social media platforms directly, noting that only with their involvement can the full potential of technical expertise be realized. Europol’s EU Innovation Hub and national research and development teams are named key EU institutions for maintaining this dialogue.

The EU Council concludes that the continuous development of encryption requires regular evaluation and review of technical, operational, and legal solutions.

These recommendations can be seen as a direct response to the discussion that arose in November. The EU Council is attempting to appease critics by emphasizing the value of encryption, while still reiterating the importance of law enforcement efficiency. It remains to be seen how willing the private sector will cooperate with the EU institutions and what measures exactly the EU Council intends to implement. This list of intentions lacks clear guidelines, recommendations or even a clearly formulated goal. Instead, the parties are asked to work together to find solutions that offer the highest level of security while maximizing law enforcement efficiency. In summary, these “recommendations” are more of a statement of intent than implementable recommendations on encryption.

EU offers new alliance with the USA on data protection

4. December 2020

The European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy outlined a new EU-US agenda for global change, which was published on December 2nd, 2020. It constitutes a proposal for a new, forward-looking transatlantic cooperation covering a variety of matters, including data protection.

The draft plan states the following guiding principles:

  • Advance of global common goods, providing a solid base for stronger multilateral action and institutions that will support all like-minded partners to join.
  • Pursuing common interests and leverage collective strength to deliver results on strategic priorities.
  • Looking for solutions that respect common values of fairness, openness and competition – including where there are bilateral differences.

As said in the draft plan, it is a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to forge a new global alliance. It includes an appeal for the EU and US to bury the hatchet on persistent sources of transatlantic tension and join forces to shape the digital regulatory environment. The proposal aims to create a shared approach to enforcing data protection law and combatting cybersecurity threats, which could also include possible restrictive measures against attributed attackers from third countries. Moreover, a transatlantic agreement concerning Artificial Intelligence forms a part of the recommendation. The purpose is setting a blueprint for regional and global standards. The EU also wants to openly discuss diverging views on data governance and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high safeguards. Furthermore, the creation of a specific dialogue with the US on the responsibility of online platforms and Big Tech is included in the proposal as well as the development of a common approach to protecting critical technologies.

The draft plan is expected to be submitted for endorsement by the European Council at a meeting on December 10-11th, 2020. It suggests an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021 as the moment to launch the new transatlantic agenda.

EU Commission proposes “Data Governance Act”

27. November 2020

The European Commission (“EC”) aims for an ecosystem of cheap, versatile, and secure EU-internal data transfers, so data transfers into non-EU-regions are less needed. For this goal, the EC proposed the “Data Governance Act” on November 25th, as a part of its “2020 European strategy for data“.  These strategies are intended in order to open up new ways of sharing data that is collected by companies and the public sector, or freely shared by individuals, while increasing public trust in data sharing by implementing several measures, such as establishing “data sharing intermediaries”. Combined with the Gaia-X project and several measures to follow, the Data Governance Act sets the basis to create a domestic data market that offers more efficiency of data transfers to the businesses, while also ensuring that GDPR standards are preserved. Key industries in the focus of this agenda are the agricultural, environmental, energy, finance, healthcare and mobility sectors as well as public administration.

During her speech presenting the Data Governance Act, Margarethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, said that there are huge amounts of data produced every day, but not put to any productive use. As examples she names road traffic data from GPS, healthcare data that enables better and faster diagnosis, or data tracking heat usage from house sensors. The amount of data produced is only going to increase exponentially in the years to come. Vestager sees a lot of potential in this unused data and states the industry has an interest in using this data, however it lacks the tools to harness it.

EU based neutral data sharing intermediaries, who serve as safe data sharing organizers, are a key factor in this project. Their role is supposed to boost the willingness of sharing personal data whilst preserving the initial owner’s control. Therefore, intermediaries are not allowed to use the data for themselves, but function as neutral third-parties, transferring data between the data holder and the data user. Furthermore, intermediaries are to organize and combine different data in a neutral way, so no company secrets can be abused and the data is only used for the agreed purpose. Before they start operating, intermediates are required to notify the competent authority of their intention to provide data-sharing services.

New laws are going to ensure that sensitive and confidential data – such as intellectual property rights – can be shared and reused, while a legitimate level of protection is maintained. The same applies to data shared by individuals voluntarily. Individuals will be able to share personal data voluntarily in so-called “personal data spaces”. Once businesses will get access to these, they benefit from large amounts of data for low costs, no effort and on short notice. Vestager introduces the example of an individual suffering from a rare illness, who could provide data of his medical tests into such a personal data space, so businesses can use this data to work on treatments. Further examples are improvements in the management of climate change and the development of more precise farming tools.

To ensure the trust of potential participants, each EU-member-state is supposed to implement new competent authorities that are tasked with implementing and enforcing the Data Governance Act. A new EU-institution, the “European Data Innovation Board”, will be implemented and tasked with informing the EC about new data innovations and working out guidelines on how to implement these innovations into practice.

A more fluent exchange between different kinds of technical expertise is the hoped-for outcome of these changes, as a means to diminish the influence of big tech companies from the U.S. and China.

The Data Governance Act now needs to go through the regular legislative process. A timetable for when it is supposed to come into effect has not yet been set.

EDPB extends consultation period for suplementary measures drafts in 42nd Plenary Session

26. November 2020

On November 19th, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) met for its 42nd plenary session. During the session, the EDPB presented two new Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) drafts, which have been developed after the Schrems II decision to give more legal certainty to data transfers, as well as extended the public consultation period on transfer mechanisms until the 21st of December 2020.

The drafts presented by the EDPB include one set of SCCs for contracts between controllers and processors, and another one for data transfers outside the EU.

The first are completely new, and have been developed by the Commission in accordance with Art. 28 (7) GDPR and Art. 29 (7) of Regulation 2018/1725. This set of SCCs is intended for EU-wide application, and the Commission drafted them with the aim to ensure full harmonisation and legal certainty across the EU for contracts between controllers and processors.

The second set of drafts is a new take on the SCCs as transfer mechanisms according to Art. 46 (2) (c) GDPR. These SCCs will replace the existing SCCs for international transfers that were adopted on the basis of Directive 95/46 and needed to be updated to bring them in line with GDPR requirements, as well as with the CJEU’s ‘Schrems II’ ruling, and to better reflect the widespread use of new and more complex processing operations often involving multiple data importers and exporters.

The Commission requested a joint opinion from the EDPB and the EDPS on the implementation on both sets of SCCs.

During the plenary, the Members of the Board also decided to extend the deadline for the public consultation on the recommendations on measures that supplement transfer tools to ensure compliance with EU level of protection of personal data from, originally, 30th November 2020 until 21st December 2020.

The EDPB further adopted a statement on the future ePrivacy Regulation and the future role of supervisory authorities and the EDPB in this context during the plenary. The EDPB underlines that many of the provisions of the future ePrivacy Regulation relate to the processing of personal data and that many provisions of the GDPR and the ePrivacy Regulation are closely intertwined. The most efficient way to have consistent interpretation and enforcement of both sets of rules would therefore be fulfilled if the enforcement of those parts of the ePrivacy Regulation and the GDPR would be entrusted to the same authority. The EDPB further underlined the necessity to adopt the new Regulation as soon as possible.

European Commission issues draft on Standard Contractual Clauses

18. November 2020

A day after the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued its recommendations on supplementary measures, on November 12th the European Commission issued a draft on implementing new Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) for data transfers to non-EU countries (third countries). The draft is open for feedback until December 10th, 2020, and includes a 12-month transition period during which companies are to implement the new SCCs. These SCCs are supposed to assist controllers and processors in transferring personal data from an EU-country to a third-country, implementing measures that guarantee GDPR-standards and regarding the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) “Schrems II” ruling.

The Annex includes modular clauses suitable for four different scenarios of data transfer. These scenarios are: (1) Controller-to-controller-transfer; (2) Controller-to-processor-transfer; (3) Processor-processor-transfer; (4) Processor-to-controller-transfer. Newly implemented in these SCCs are the latter two scenarios. Since the clauses in the Annex are modular, they can be mixed and matched into a contract fitting the situation at hand. Furthermore, more than two parties can adhere to the SCC and the modular approach even allows for additional parties to accede later on.

The potential of government access to personal data is distinctly addressed, since this was a main issue following the “Schrems II” ruling. Potential concerns are met by implementing clauses that address how the data importer must react when laws of the third country impinge on his ability to comply with the contract, especially the SCCs, and how he must react in case of government interference.  Said measures include notifying the data exporter and the data subject of any government interference, such as legally binding requests of access to personal data, and, if possible, sharing further information on these requests on a regular basis, documenting them and challenging them legally. Termination clauses have been added, in case the data importer cannot comply further, e.g. because of changes in the third country’s law.

Further clauses regard matters such as data security, transparency, accuracy and onwards transfer of personal data, which represent issues that have all been tackled in the older SCCs, but are to be updated now.

EU Commission highlights necessary preparations for end of Brexit transitioning period

14. July 2020

The European Commission has published a communication on July 9th, 2020, in order to highlight the main areas of change in view of the upcoming end of the transitional Brexit period before January 1st, 2021.

The communication aims to facilitate readiness and preparations for citizens, businesses and stockholders once the UK leaves the European Union. The European Commission states that readiness for these broad and far reaching changes is key, especially since they will take place regardless of the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU.

The communication breaches subjects such as trade in goods, trade in services, energy, travelling and tourism, mobility and social security coordination, company law and civil law, intellectual property, data transfers and protection and international agreements of the EU.

The communication also includes advice in each of those areas and subjects for businesses to be able to start preparations in order to cope with the changes ahead.

With a view on data protection, the European Commission’s communication states that data transfers can continue after January 1st, 2021, however they will have to comply with EU rules and regulations for Third Country Transfers as put forth by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Commission specifies the tools set out in Chapter V of the GDPR, which include Binding Corporate Rules, Standard Contractual Clauses, as well as an Adequacy Decision by the European Commission. The communication states that the EU will try its best to conclude the assessment of the UK regime by the end of 2020, in order to give at least some form of security for data transfers after the transitional period ends. On sides of the United Kingdom, the Adequacy of the European union is guaranteed until 2024.

The advice of the European Commission emphasizes compliancy with the GDPR as the best preparation for the Brexit, but lacks security as to what will happen on January 1st, 2021, especially with regards to the future applicable laws.

Transatlantic Data Transfers in light of the Two Year Anniversary of GDPR Application

7. July 2020

In the last two years since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect on May 25, 2018, it has received an overall positive feedback and structured the data protection culture not only in the European Union, but has set an example for international privacy standards.

However, especially from the American side of the world, criticism has been constant. Different principles are a prerequisite for different opinions and priorities, and the effort to bring European data protection standards and American personal data business together has been a challenge on both sides.

One of the main criticisms coming from the US government is the increasing obstacles the GDPR poses in case of cybercrime investigations and law enforcement. Not only the restrictive implications of the GDPR are an issue, but also the divergent interpretations due to national adaptations of the GDPR are seen as a problem by government officials.

In the cases of cybercrime, the main issue for the US critics is the now less effective database of domain name owners, WHOIS. The online directory, which was created in the 1970s, is an important tool for law enforcement combatting cybercrime. Before the GDPR came into effect in 2018, the request for information on domain owners was straightforward. Now, due to the restrictions of the GDPR, this process has been made long and tedious.

But fighting cybercrime is not the only tension between the EU and the USA concerning data protection. In a judgement in the Schrems II case, expected for July 16, 2020, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is expected to take a stance on transatlantic data transfers and the current Privacy Shield, which is the basis for the EU-US dataflows under adequate data protection standards. If the Privacy Shield is deemed insufficient protection, it will have a major effect on EU-US business transactions.

However, these are issues that the European Commission (EC) is very aware of. In their communication concerning the two-year review of the GDPR, the Commission stated that they are planning to balance out diverging and fragmented interpretations of the GDPR on national levels and find a common data protection culture within Europe.

In addition, the restrictions the GDPR poses to law enforcement are another point the European Commission knows it needs to fix. The plan for the future is a bilateral and multilateral framework that can allow for simple requests to share data for law enforcement purposes and avoid conflicts of law, while keeping data protection safeguards intact.

The upcoming judgement of the ECJ is seen with watchful eyes by the Commission, and will be incorporated in their upcoming adequacy decisions and re-evaluations, as well as their development of a modern international transfer toolbox, which includes a modernized version of the standard contractual clauses.

Overall, the two-year mark of the existence of the GDPR is seen more as a success, despite the clear areas for future improvement. One of the big challenges in transatlantic data transfers ahead is without a doubt the outcome of the judgement in the Schrems case in mid-July, the implications of which are, at this point in time, not yet able to be defined.

Hungary Update: EDPB publishes Statement on Art. 23 GDPR

17. June 2020

Since March 2020, Hungary has been in a “state of emergency” following the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s COVID-19 related emergency laws and state of emergency received worldwide criticism from constitutional experts, politicians and civil rights groups, because it allows the Prime Minister to rule by decree during the state of emergency and does not provide a predefined end date. During the state of emergency, Prime Minister Victor Orbán made extensive use of his newly gained powers by passing more than a hundred decrees, including Decree No. 179/2020, which suspended the GDPR data subject rights in Art. 15-22 GDPR with respect to personal data processing for the purpose of preventing, understanding, detecting the coronavirus disease and impeding its further spread (we reported).

In response to this suspension of GDPR rights, the European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”) has recently published a Statement on restrictions on data subject rights pursuant to Art. 23 GDPR, which is the provision that Hungary’s measure was based on. This article allows the member states to restrict, by way of a legislative measure, the scope of the obligations and rights provided for in Articles 12 to 22 and Article 34, when such a restriction respects the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms and is a necessary and proportionate measure in a democratic society to safeguard, inter alia, important objectives of general public interest of the Union or of a Member State such as public health.

In its Statement, the EDPB points out that any restriction must respect the essence of the right that is being restricted. If the essence of the right is compromised, the restriction must be considered unlawful. Since the data subject’s right of access and the right to rectification are fundamental rights according to Art. 8 para. 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, any restriction of those rights must be carefully weighed up by the member states, in order respect the essence of the rights. The EDPB considers that restrictions adopted in the context of a state of emergency suspending or postponing the application of data subject rights, without any clear limitation in time, equate to a de facto blanket suspension and denial of those rights and are not be compatible with the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms.

The EDPB also recalls that the restrictions under Art. 23 GDPR must be necessary and proportionate. It argues that restrictions that are imposed for a duration not precisely limited in time or which apply retroactively or are subject to undefined conditions, are not foreseeable to data subjects and thus disproportionate.

Furthermore, the EDPB takes the view that in order to safeguard important objectives of general public interest such as public health (Art. 23 para. 1 lit. e GDPR), there must be a clearly established and demonstrated link between the foreseen restrictions and the objective pursued. The mere existence of a pandemic or any other emergency situation alone does not justify a restriction of data subject rights, especially if it is not clearly established, how the restrictions can help dealing with the emergency.

Following the international public backlash, the Parliament of Hungary passed legislation on 16 June 2020 to revoke the emergency laws as soons as the current state of emergency will be terminated by the Government. Hungary’s Government announced in May that it intends to lift the state of emergency on 20 June 2020. After that, the restrictions on the GDPR rights shall be lifted as well, so that data subject may exercise their Art. 15-22 GDPR rights again.

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