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Facebook gets a thumbs-up from privacy officials

The Advocate General to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has said Facebook is not in violation of privacy rules in transferring data to US servers.

In a rare sign of approval from privacy officials, Facebook has won the backing of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe, who has confirmed Facebook Ireland is acting legally by sending data to servers located in the US. The opinion from Øe is in connection with a lawsuit filed by Austrian privacy advocate Max Schrems.

Removing all the legal jargon, Øe’s opinion is that there are adequate protections in place to ensure the rights of European citizens are maintained in the event data is transferred from Facebook’s Irish servers to be processed in the US. Agreements have been signed between the two parties which contain contractual clauses to enforce the privacy rights of European citizens.

Although this is the opinion of the Advocate General and not binding for the CJEU, it is a very positive (and perhaps surprising) note for a company which so often flirts with privacy controversy.

For Schrems, this is not the most encouraging of signs. The CJEU is not bound to Øe’s opinion, but the courts rarely hold a different view to such high-ranking officials.

The court case in question was initially filed by Schrems, the man largely responsible for the downfall of the Safe Harbour mechanism dictating trans-Atlantic data transfer, in 2015. Schrems argued that in light of privacy violations highlighted by Edward Snowden, the Irish data protection authorities were falling short of their own responsibilities. As it had been proven intelligence agencies were spying on citizens, Schrems argued it was not possible to maintain the privacy rights of European citizens if data is transferred to the US.

With the downfall of Safe Harbour, the mechanism that deems protections were being upheld in the US, big questions were being asked. Schrems suggested that even with the contractual clauses in place protections could not be maintained and there was little justification to transfer data to US servers in the first place.

Øe’s opinion disagrees with these assertions. Firstly, the ‘exporter’ has placed appropriate protections, and secondly, the US Government is entitled to process some data under the banner of national security.

Schrems has been fighting Facebook and other internet platforms for years in an attempt to stop the flow of information across the Atlantic. He and other privacy advocates suggest this information is being used to aide US intelligence agencies in snooping on European citizens. While his actions certainly were successful in bringing down Safe Harbour, he has been less successful in arguing the invalidity of the replacement mechanism, Privacy Shield.

Data protection is, and will continue to be, a significant talking point in the increasingly digital world, though this is a case which will add some confidence in the internet platforms so many people blindly trust. The new digital world needs people like Schrems to hold Big Tech accountable, though it does appear this is a case where the internet giants are on the right side of the line.


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