C-362/14 Schrems I

C-362/14 Schrems I

The CJEU judgment in the Schrems I case

In 2013 Schrems filed a complaint against Facebook Ireland Ltd with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Ireland being the country where Facebook has its European Headquarters. The complaint was aimed at prohibiting Facebook to further transfer data from Ireland to the United States, given the alleged involvement of Facebook USA in the PRISM mass surveillance program. Schrems based his complaint on EU data protection law, which does not allow data transfers to non-EU countries unless a company can guarantee “adequate protection”. The DPC rejected the complaint, saying that it was “frivolous and vexatious” and that there was no case to answer. Schrems filed an application for judicial review in the Irish High Court over the inaction by the Irish DPC, which was granted. On 18 June 2014, Mr. Justice Hogan adjourned the case pending a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). He said that Irish law relating to privacy had effectively been pre-empted by European law and that the core issue was whether the relevant directives should be re-evaluated in the light of the subsequent entry into force of Article 8 (protection of personal data) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The European Commission found in the executive decision 2000/520/EC that the so-called EU–US Safe Harbor Principles would provide “adequate protection” under Article 25 of Directive 95/56/EC, when it comes to the transfer of personal information from the EU to the US. This executive decision by the European Commission was called into question by the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations. In essence Schrems therefore argued that the Safe Harbor system would violate his fundamental right to privacy, data protection and the right to a fair trial under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The oral hearing before the CJEU was held on 24 March 2015. The court’s Advocate General for the case is Yves Bot. During the hearing, Bot asked the European Commission lawyer Bernhard Schima what advice he could give him if he was worried about his data being at the disposal of US authorities. Schima replied that he might consider closing down his Facebook account, if he had one. He said the European Commission was unable to guarantee that “adequate” safeguards for the protection of data are met, a remark that Schrems said was the most striking thing he heard at the hearing.

Bot delivered his opinion on 23 September 2015. He declared the Safe Harbour agreement invalid and said that individual data protection authorities could suspend data transfers to third countries if they violated EU rights.

On 6 October 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that, (1) national supervisory authorities still have the power to examine EU–US data transfers in spite of an existing Commission decision (such as its Safe Harbour Decision in 2000 which determined that US companies complying with the principles were allowed to transfer data from the EU to the US), and (2) the Safe Harbour framework is invalid. The Court found that the framework is invalid for several reasons: the scheme allows for government interference of the protections, it does not provide legal remedies for individuals who seek to access data related to them or have it erased or amended, and it prevents national supervisory authorities from exercising their powers. Under EU law, data-sharing with countries deemed to have lower privacy standards, including the US, are prohibited. Such activities will only be possible through more expensive and time-consuming methods.

On 2 December 2015, Schrems resubmitted his original complaint against Facebook with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. He also sent similar complaints to the Hamburg and Belgian Data Protection Authorities, which both claim jurisdiction over Facebook. The complaints are designed to enforce the CJEU judgement on Facebook, which presently does not rely on Safe Harbour for its data transfers. Instead Facebook relies on pre-approved contractual agreements called “model clauses”. Schrems argues that these agreements also incorporate exceptions for cases of illegal mass surveillance, and thus that the CJEU ruling applies to these agreements as well. The Irish Data Protection Commissioner took the view that Schrems had raised “well-founded” objections, but that it needs further guidance from the CJEU to determine the complaint.

After the proceedings in February/March 2017, Ms Justice Costello of the Irish High Court delivered the executive summary on Oct 3, 2017, referring the case to the CJEU.

*You can find a Summary of the case in the link here.