Last week, the Irish High Court made a judgement on transatlantic data flows that could have far reaching implications for US tech firms and point the way towards economic disaster for the UK.
Yes, it might not have received much coverage at the time, but the court’s decision was a biggie.
It asked the European Union Court of Justice (CJEU) to scrutinise the mechanism by which Facebook and many other firms transfer data: standard contractual clauses (SCCs).
Why? Because Austrian law student Max Schrems is still not happy that his personal data could theoretically be snooped on by the US authorities whilst residing in Facebook datacentres over there. His previous battle with Facebook over this issue led to the collapse of the Safe Harbour agreement between the EU and US.
Its replacement, Privacy Shield, is the other main legal mechanism – aside from SCCs – that govern data transfers outside the US.
“In simple terms, US law requires Facebook to help the NSA with mass surveillance and EU law prohibits just that,” Schrems said in a written statement following the court’s decision. “As Facebook is subject to both jurisdictions, they got themselves in a legal dilemma that they cannot possibly solve in the long run.”
Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Innovation Labs and Chatham House associate fellow, took time out to discuss the issue with me.
“The reference to the CJEU is no surprise, and the fact that the US government applied to be joined as party shows how high the stakes are on all sides – for governments, for big data platforms like Facebook, and for individuals,” she told me.
“The case shows that the Snowden revelations continue to reverberate on both sides of the Atlantic. The CJEU has taken a consistently hard line against mass data collection and retention, and increasingly relies on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter allows for ‘more extensive protection’ of fundamental rights such as privacy, compared with the more familiar European Convention.”
That spells some uncertain times ahead for Silicon Valley, especially with Privacy Shield also facing an uncertain future.
That’s not all though. The case tells us much about what may happen to post-Brexit Britain.
Our digital economy is worth around £160bn and responsible for over 1.5m jobs, by some estimates. That makes it a vital part of the economy, and means unhindered data transfers with the EU – our biggest trading partner and the largest trading bloc in the world – are absolutely essential.
So how do we square the EU’s requirements around strong privacy protections for citizens, with the round hole of the UK’s brand spanking new Investigatory Powers Act? Also known as the Snoopers’ Charter, the new law has given the UK authorities probably more power than any country on earth – save for China and North Korea – to snoop on their own citizens.
“It is difficult to see how the UK’s mass data collection requirements under the Investigatory Powers Act could satisfy the EU Charter and this could have a severe impact on EU-UK data flows, potentially damaging UK business interests post-Brexit,” Taylor concluded.
That should be getting people in all sorts of high places very nervous indeed.
Reports emerged from China today that at first sight seem almost unbelievable: the Communist Party about to lift the Great Firewall and unblock access to Facebook, Twitter and a host of other banned sites.
Then the small print. If the anonymous government sources are speaking the truth, it will be only be relevant to Shanghai Free Trade Zone, a 28 sq km pilot project designed to encourage greater foreign investment in China and open its economy up to the international markets.
“In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home,” one government source told the South China Morning Post.
“If they can’t get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China.”
Now while that seems fair enough, the Communist Party isn’t known for its love of unfettered access to the internet – after all the free flow of information online is precisely the sort of thing which it knows will lead to its demise.
So what’s this all about? Well, a few things sprung to mind:
- China is in the middle of one of the worst crack downs on online freedom anyone can remember, so don’t expect this localised liberalisation to spread anywhere else in the Middle Kingdom. The party is very much still for the suppression of any discussion it deems “harmful”.
- Even if the Great Firewall is lifted in the Shanghai zone, doing so from a technical standpoint will take time, according to Forrester analyst Bryan Wang.
“The network within the free trade zone will exist something like an intranet, which is connected to the international backbone without going through the Great Wall firewall,” he told me. “Current infrastructure will not be enough to support the future development. China Telecom or Unicom will need to lay out new fibre in the free trade zone.”
- The Party giveth and it taketh away. Nothing is confirmed yet, and until state-run media reprint the story, we can probably take it as just a rumour, possibly one designed to increase international publicity for the zone, which is a pet project of new premier Li Keqiang.
The whole free trade zone itself is only a pilot, so we can expect Beijing to bring the Great Firewall crashing back down on the region if its censorship-free internet policy backfires.
On a side note, how will Hong Kong react to the free trade zone?
If the Shanghai pilot is successful, more of them could spring up across China, effectively stealing its thunder as the only truly outward facing, economically liberalised, online censorship-free region in the Middle Kingdom.
Although a free and unfettered internet may soon no longer be a differentiator for Honkers, however, it’s likely that its superior IP protection regime, rule of law and business friendly visa system will still tip the balance in its favour for most MNCs.