Annulment of Privacy Shield by the European Court of Justice

Conditions and recommendations for the public sector and its suppliers


In the spring of 2018, Safespring published a white paper on the consequences of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)1 and the American CLOUD Act on cloud procurement.

Safespring's white paper concluded with eleven recommendations for organizations working with cloud infrastructure for data protection, data security, and jurisdiction issues. In a ruling made on 16 July 2020, the European Court of Justice further specified the conditions for the transfer of the data of European individuals to US jurisdiction. This has called for Safespring to update its earlier recommendations.

This white paper is divided into three parts

  • Part I This document reviews the Schrems II decision,
  • Part II the market structure for cloud services and the interaction between technical requirements and law,
  • Part III and an outline of the way forwards.

Part II expands on Safespring's earlier recommendations for the organization's activities regarding the new legal situation.

Part III gives organizations better conditions for stipulating the appropriate requirements for state coordination.

Part I - Introduction
Further clarification of EU data transfer rules

On 16 July 2020, the European Court of Justice ruled on case C-311/18, usually referred to as "Schrems II".

On 16 July 2020, the European Court of Justice ruled on case C-311/18,1. The case is usually referred to as “Schrems II”, concerning the compatibility of European constitutional principles with what was, until the ruling was made, politically accepted standards for data transfer to the third country, the United States. In essence, the ruling confirmed what the European Court of Justice had already made clear in several rulings after the Lisbon Treaty came into effect in 2009: data protection is a constitutional principle in the EU area (Article 8 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights) and the clarification of the rules for upholding this constitutional principle, such as in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), does not undermine this constitutional principle.

Schrems II further clarifies that these considered norms mean that some aspects of American intelligence and security legislation prevent companies that have obligations under this legislation from being regarded as safe recipients of data in the European legal sense. The European Court of Justice also reminds European politicians that companies cannot use the administrative data transfer decisions that the European Commission can make under Article 45 of the GDPR and transfer agreements under Articles 46 and 49 of the GDPR to circumvent the European constitutional principles of data protection.

Data transfer decisions, or decisions on an adequate level of protection, involve the European Commission decided that standards in a third country are such that they protect the rights of European citizens. A data transfer decision is not an agreement in the true sense of the word but a unilateral announcement by the European Commission.

In practice, however, the European Commission does not make decisions independently but receives support from the committee of Member State representatives as established in Article 93 of the GDPR. Negotiations with the third country often precede the European Commission's decisions.

Data transfer agreements can take the form of standardized data protection provisions (Article 46.2 of the GDPR), a data processing agreement (Article 46.3 of the GDPR), or an agreement between a trader and an individual (Article 49 of the GDPR).

Standardized data protection provisions must provide protection that is materially equivalent to domestic European legislation.

The ruling has consequences for companies and authorities that process the personal data of European citizens in the sense that there is now much more limited scope for agreements and cooperation with actors that are at risk of being subjected to obligations under US legislation in respect of data disclosure to authorities.

The European court of justice has ruled explicitly that:

  • third-country legislation on security does not affect the application of European rights for citizens, even if the European citizen interacts with traders from the third country (paragraph 89 of C-311/18);
  • the requirement for materially equivalent protection for the rights of European citizens in the case of data transfer is not affected by the specific mechanism used for transfers (paragraph 82 of C-311/18);
  • the “level of protection” for personal data must be materially equivalent to that established under EU law, without regard to specific national provisions in individual EU countries (paragraphs 101 and 103 of C-311/18);
  • the ability of third-country authorities to expect access to data affects the level of protection (paragraph 103 of C-311/18);
  • supervisory authorities must act when materially equivalent protection cannot be established, especially in the absence of a data transfer decision (paragraphs 120 and 121 of C-311/18);
  • a decision by the European Commission on standard contractual clauses does not affect the obligations of data controllers and recipients of personal data to cease transfers if the protection afforded by the clauses cannot be upheld (paragraph 142 of C-311/18); and
  • the European Commission's data transfer decision “Privacy Shield” is not valid (paragraph 201 of C-311/18).

In essence, the European Court of Justice has confirmed the conclusions already set out in Safespring's white paper How to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the CLOUD Act and GDPR from 2018. Although the economic stress of further tensions between the US and the EU on data protection issues has not been eased by the political reactions to either Schrems I or the recently announced Schrems II ruling, the legal situation is now more precise.

The Schrems II ruling has clarified that the problem lies not in where the data itself is stored but in where the actor who stores said data is located. The rights codified in European law protect natural persons, and the obligations to uphold these rights codified in European law apply to natural persons and legal entities. Suppose third-country legislation applies to a natural person or legal entity in such a way that it is prevented from upholding its obligations in respect of a natural person's fundamental rights. In that case, this is, in principle, a significant obstacle to cooperation with that natural person or legal entity.

The ruling reaffirms Safespring's recommendations for organizations in respect of cloud services.2 However, organizations must ensure that they have a thorough legal analysis of data catalogs and legal bases for processing and transferring personal data, as well as ensure that the services they rely on use publicly specified protocols and are technically designed to allow for a possible change of supplier in the future. In the case of investments in or the use of cloud services that may, at some stage in the market, affect (European) authorities’ processing of personal data, it appears that cooperation with US companies is, in principle, excluded if the US does not change its domestic legislation in favor of European legal entities.

This last condition will be of particular interest in the process announced by the European Commission for initiating talks on a new data transfer decision.3

The Schrems II ruling clarifies that it is the location of the supplier rather than the location of the data that limits the possibility of data transfer, particularly to US jurisdiction. The protection of European individuals is considered to be undermined as third-country authorities may impose obligations on third-country service providers, resulting in European individuals not receiving the protection of their data that is materially equivalent to what they would enjoy within the borders of the European Union.

These conclusions are not new in European law. In complementary legislation SOU 2017:74 on data storage for law enforcement purposes, it is stated that data storage under European legal practice is subject to location requirements.

Part II - The Cloud
Local infrastructure with local adaptation

Cloud services have offered enormous opportunities for organizations to streamline and automate their work.

Although it is primarily through economies of scale that cloud services contribute to everything from environmental sustainability to enhanced security efforts, the enhanced ability to get rapid access to either data storage capacity or data processing capacity, without formalized procurement processes, has resulted in advances in this modern form of IT operations in, not only, the private sector but also the public sector.4

The advantages of a degree of centralization are also reflected in increased adaptability. Different parties can spread costs for the development and maintenance of basic functionalities. Over the past ten years, several global consortia have been established to uphold and develop useful essential functions for managing large numbers of servers.5 In smaller IT systems, functions which can be automated through economies of scale can take many hours of labor. At the same time, tasks that are usually time-consuming and expensive, such as investments in the real-time monitoring of the security of the IT environment or in measures to prevent security deficiencies, become easier to justify. With a foundation of secure and optimized basic functions, specialist services can then be added and adapted according to the needs of each business. The business can then rely on a stable and solid foundation without having to build an entire IT architecture from scratch each time a new concept is to be tested.

The massive interest in cloud services has seen the market develop rapidly, including several different services with different benefits for the contracting customer. Varying degrees of automation and economies of scale can be provided depending on the specific requirements of each contracting organization.

The term “cloud service” thus includes both the centralized management of infrastructure – virtualized servers with an operating system that the customer can arrange as they see fit, and to which they can add and maintain specific services for specific purposes (such as databases, web servers, or administrative systems) – and purpose-specific systems whereby the cloud service provider assists with database tools and other basic building blocks for more specialized functionality. The most visible element of the cloud market for a typical end consumer of services that the cloud service provider has highly refined is centralized systems for everything from text editing to scheduling and video conferencing.

The cloud market has also been developed to interact with different types of cloud services as part of B2B relationships. A refined cloud service in a staff log system can thus interact with a more infrastructural cloud service providing virtual servers. In this way, end customers need only take care of the entry and verification of relevant data rather than maintaining and administering code bases and underlying operating systems. It is also common that the same market player provides both infrastructure services and refined services. Just like the telecoms markets were characterized by vertical integration in the 1980s, today's cloud market is also dominated by players with a high level of vertical integration. This means that companies simultaneously provide infrastructure, platforms, and software.

Contracting end consumers need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of vertical integration carefully. In a vertically separated market where many different companies can contribute new functionalities at each level in the value chain, there is more scope for a varied and tailored range of services. Furthermore, large end consumers are put in a more informed position vis-à-vis suppliers. Just as vertical separation and competition in the telecoms market paved the way for the development of innovative services in the 1990s, separation, and competition in the cloud market can create the scope for innovative services in the 2020s.

A key difference is that the cloud market is already primarily based on cross-border and shared open code bases. The origin of the market is global, not national, and a greater degree of vertical separation does not necessarily mean a greater degree of nationalization. This means that applications, computing power, and data entered into these applications are geographically and organisationally mobile. Data transfers have become common in a cross-border sense and the sense that data is transferred between organizations, each of which plays its role in delivering the final service.

A German project trying to combine experience from the telecoms industry with the benefits of the cloud industry is GAIA-X6, a framework for cost-sharing between geographically linked actors providing interoperable services.7 In France, it has been emphasized for almost a decade that procurement instruments may be particularly suitable for strengthening the role of small European companies in digital ecosystems, with particular emphasis on open data and cloud services solutions.7

With increased flexibility comes increased responsibility

In practice, the use of cloud services means that data that a contracting organization is responsible for, and applications that use this data as input, will be located in infrastructure that the organization itself does not administer. Regardless of the level of refinement organizations choose for their cloud services, many economies of scale hinge on the administrator of the cloud service's infrastructure having access to sufficient information about the data being processed to make the resources available and ensure the level of security the customer requires. In this technical inevitability, obligations for contracting organizations arise to the European Court of Justice's Schrems II rulings.

The European Court of Justice's assessment of fundamental rights in the EU area creates a requirement for data controller organizations to obtain an overview of the entire value chain, even when procuring a specific and limited software application that will provide only a limited benefit within their own business. The end consumer should consider the benefits of the service being procured and look at how the service provider interacts with its subcontractors.

The government study The invisible infrastructure from 2007 has already observed8 that “[IT] infrastructure has the peculiarity that it is invisible in cases where standards are in place and are appropriate. They [the standards] are noticed once they are absent and create issues. IT standards are also largely invisible in the decision-making of business managers. Business decisions, such as concerning the procurement of e-services, often also involve choosing standards, but these do not seem to be chosen separately and explicitly, at least not at the level of those responsible for the business, and are unspoken consequences; of various kinds of business decisions.” One of the consequences of both the GDPR and the Schrems II ruling should be that these unspoken consequences are stated.

Data processors must ensure that any sub-processors are subject to the same contractual obligations as the data processor itself towards individuals whose data is processed by a data controller (Article 28 of the GDPR).

However, it is up to the data controller to ensure that both processors and subcontractors fulfill the proper contractual guarantees. When either a processor or the processor's subcontractor is affected by legal obligations in a third country, the European Court of Justice considers that the data controller has an all-encompassing responsibility to ensure that these legal obligations do not undermine the data protection of European citizens. The European Court of Justice also considers that the duties of the data controller are not reduced simply because it is not possible to establish an actual realization of such legal obligations for specific data – it is sufficient that such a legal obligation may arise (cf. paragraph 142 of C-311/18).

Under European law, a third country is a country that is not a member of the European Union.

Some third countries, such as EFTA members, have a privileged status over other third countries because they have adhered to EU legislation. Other third countries, such as the United States, Japan, and India, do not have a privileged status.

Data transfers to third countries are regulated in Chapter 5 of the GDPR.

Safespring's checklist from 2018 addresses the questions that each organization should ask when choosing infrastructure.9 In light of the Schrems II ruling, clarification needs to be made in this checklist that cloud service providers that fall under third-country legislation would find it difficult to comply with the requirements of EU law. In particular, in the third country the United States, the legislation would need to change to enable companies based in the country to be an acceptable recipient of data from a data protection perspective. It is no longer enough to keep track of which (sensitive) personal data may end up with a foreign authority. Instead, the risk that such data may be required to be disclosed now needs to be actively prevented.

In practice, this means that contracting organizations should limit their choice of service providers and subcontractors to those legally based somewhere in the EEA. There may also be a need to ensure that the administration and maintenance of IT systems are not performed by persons operating outside the EEA. The failure of European politicians and the European Commission on two occasions to formulate data transfer decisions with strong enough guarantees for data protection should also prompt contracting organizations to hesitate to trust future data transfer decisions.10 In practice, despite limited legal scope, to circumvent the European Court of Justice, Swedish politicians have nevertheless primarily steered towards efforts that retain the status quo,11 the result being that actors who follow the political guidelines are at risk of making a legal error.12

Supplementary recommendations 13

  • Check whether downstream service providers use subcontractors in the form of PaaS or SaaS providers.
  • Check whether the service provider has used openly specified software functionalities (such as APIs or data formats) when designing its service.
  • Verify that there is a contract between the service provider and the subcontractor and that the agreement complies with data protection requirements.
  • Check that the subcontractor provides documentation on the open standards and specifications used by the subcontractor for its infrastructure solutions. Furthermore, check that the service provider has ensured that it can migrate to another subcontractor if necessary.
  • Check whether either the service provider or its subcontractors have their legal domicile in a third country. Assess whether there is then a risk that third-country authorities could require the subcontractor or the service provider to disclose data to third-country authorities.

Transparency as protection against political instability

At both the European14 and the Swedish15 levels, it has been stressed that a stronger emphasis on openly accessible program code and open standards creates both transparency and clarity in the way that European data protection law now seems to require. The Swedish Agency for Digital Government recommends that Swedish public authorities publish their proprietary code under open software licenses.16

Open standards and open code bases are not recommendations derived from European data protection law. They do, however, enable greater mobility for end consumers between different suppliers. If the infrastructure is open and interoperable, the end consumer has greater freedom to adapt to, for example, court rulings.

Although data protection law does not require organizations to ensure an ability to change suppliers, the development of practice in data protection law seems to be such that organizations may want to invest in such flexibility themselves.

In the case of data transfers, the political leadership in Sweden and Europe has not once but twice miscalibrated political decisions in such a way that the European Court of Justice has been forced to tear them up. For organizations that need to comply with current law, exorbitant costs, wasted time, and massive uncertainty. Conscious investments in open standards and code reduce friction should things need to be changed.

Part III - The road ahead

Organizations in Europe can currently be prevented from choosing cloud services that fall under US legislation.

The reason for this is US legislation on intelligence activities and the CLOUD Act, which Safespring has already touched on in previous white papers. Against this background, in addition to following Safespring's existing recommendations and the reinforcements mentioned above, organizations should: develop a plan to migrate away from cloud services that fall under US legislation;17

  • review how their organization already works with existing guidelines from the national government procurement hub (such as by evaluating existing projects based on current recommendations); and
  • actively engage the government in developing a national plan for cloud services that is compatible with European law.


Amelia Andersdotter wrote this white paper. Safespring provides cloud services produced in the EU with high levels of legal security.

  1. ECLI: EU:C:2020:559
  2. Safespring, white paper: How to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the CLOUD Act and GDPR, 2018
  3. European Commission, 10 August 2020, Joint Press Statement from European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders and US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.
  4. State service center, A joint state cloud service for the IT operations of public authorities, interim report 2017.
  5. Cf. OpenStack Foundation (OSF) and Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).
  6. GAIA-X: a federated data infrastructure for Europe.
  7. Interoperability: interaction between different components. See also SOU 2007:47, p. 133 ff.
  8. Rapport d’Information No 443, Union européenne – colonie du monde numérique ?, 20 March 2013, pp. 115-116.
  9. SOU 2007:47, The invisible infrastructure, p. 64.
  10. Cf. footnote 2 above.
  11. Both the Safe Harbor decision from 2001 and the Privacy Shield decision from 2016 have been annulled by the European Court of Justice.
  12. See Committee Directive 2019:64 with additions in Directive 2020:73.
  13. See organization recommendations in footnote 2 above.
  14. C(2018) 7118, European Commission Digital Strategy – A digitally transformed, user-focused and data-driven Commission, 2018.
  15. E-delegation, Guidance for digital collaboration, Version 4.1, 28 May 2015.
  16. DIGG, 2019-136, Policy for software development.
  17. Question 5 in part II will, in principle, always need to be answered in the affirmative when using US cloud services if the US does not change its legislation.
Annulment of Privacy Shield by the European Court of Justice