Wednesday 28 September 2016

Data Protection Q & A: What does this mean for all of us?

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

You can still email, message or ‘like’ US friends online. But the European Court of Justice says such services could possibly be “suspended” some time soon
You can still email, message or ‘like’ US friends online. But the European Court of Justice says such services could possibly be “suspended” some time soon

What does the EU court ruling mean for all of us?

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I use Facebook and Gmail. Does any of this affect me?

Not right away. You can still email, message or ‘like’ US friends online. But the European Court of Justice says such services could possibly be “suspended” some time soon.

Suspended? What does that mean?

No-one seems to want to spell it out in any detail. But taken literally, it could mean that an EU country such as Ireland slaps a ban on a company such as Facebook sending any of its European users’ photos or messages to US data centres. Whether that would mean that US users would be cut off from European ones has not been clarified.

Why would they ban Facebook transfers from Europe to the US anyway?

Because Europe finds US spy agencies’ snooping into EU citizens’ personal information on services such as Gmail or Facebook unacceptable. And it has decided to take a stand on the issue, especially after the Snowden revelations of 2013. It is trying to say that EU citizens’ privacy trumps Facebook users’ convenience.

How does this ruling boost my privacy?

It will probably accelerate the advent of a new treaty between the EU and the US on data privacy. That could bolster privacy rights. On the other hand, it doesn’t get around the basic issue that sparked this all off, which is that US spy agencies will continue to collect personal data from our Facebook, Google and Microsoft accounts. So in one way, a lot of this is simply dancing around the main problem that no-one is prepared to confront – US authorities will continue to spy on EU citizens’ Facebook or Twitter accounts.

But if the Americans continue to spy on our Facebook and Gmail accounts, how can any new EU-US treaty on privacy gloss over that?

It can probably do so with the help of elaborately verbose legal language. And by Europeans pretending that the spying has stopped.

Is there any risk that Google, Facebook or Microsoft might pull out of Ireland because of this?

Not really. Europe is a big market and they all make good money here. On top of this, they have all indicated that Ireland is a data protection jurisdiction they regard more highly than other EU countries.

The only warning they have issued is that stricter data privacy rules might nudge them into two-tier services, where American users get slightly different features than Europeans. This would be because the companies weren’t allowed to collect certain types of data that is transferred back to US servers. If such a two-tier market emerged, it also could mean that data-based start-ups leave Europe until later in their launch schedule.

What is Facebook saying about all this?

It’s saying that it will barely affect Facebook users because they can easily come up with alternative ‘user consent’ agreements that they think can cover them for the time being, in the absence of the EU’s ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement with the US.

But wait – wasn’t this whole thing based on a Facebook case? And what is ‘Safe Harbour’ anyway?

Yes, it’s based on an Irish High Court case about Facebook. An Austrian student called Max Schrems complained that his Facebook data wasn’t safe in US hands because of the Snowden revelations, documenting how the US National Security Agency collects detailed personal data from Facebook and other big web companies. The reason the Irish Data Protection Commissioner wouldn’t deal with the case was because it was supposedly covered by ‘Safe Harbour’, an EU-US treaty set up to ensure that European citizens’ data was handled with due care to EU privacy standards in the US.

Does the Irish Government have any role in this?

Officially, no. But while it outwardly projects solidarity with citizens’ privacy rights, some parts of it will be groaning at the issues piling up on its doorstep. It has a placatory job on its hands over the coming months. It already has an impending headache with the EU’s probe into tax deals gleaned here by multinationals. Now it has to walk the line between privacy rights and keeping the big web companies, who are starting to grumble a lot, happy in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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