As data protection-related political dramas go, the debate about the suitability and future viability of Safe Harbor is right at the top. The truth is that even when the concept was first floated by the US Department of Commerce as a self-regulatory mechanism to enable personal data transfers between the EU and the USA, and avert the threat of a trade war, it was clear that the idea would prove controversial. The fact that an agreement was finally reached between the US Government and the European Commission after several years of negotiations did not settle the matter, and European data protection authorities have traditionally been more or less publicly critical of the arrangement. The level of discomfort with Safe Harbor as an adequate mechanism in accordance with European standards was made patently obvious in the Article 29 Working Party Opinion on cloud computing of 2012, which argued that sole self-certification with Safe Harbor would not be sufficient to protect personal data in a cloud environment.
The Department of Commerce has now issued its own clarifications in response to the concerns raised by the Working Party Opinion. Understandably, the Department of Commerce makes a fierce defence of Safe Harbor as an officially recognised mechanism, which was approved by the European Commission and cannot be dismissed by the EU regulators. That is and will always be correct. Whilst the clarifications do not go into the detail of the Working Party Opinion, they certainly confirm that as far as data transfers are concerned, a Safe Harbor certification provides a public guarantee of adequate protection under the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission.
Such robust remarks will be music to the ears of those US cloud computing service providers that have chosen to rely on Safe Harbor to show their European compliance credentials. But the debate is far from over. The European regulators are unlikely to change their mind any time soon and if their enforcement powers increase and allow them to go after cloud service providers directly (rather than their customers) as intended by the draft Data Protection Regulation, they will be keen to put those powers into practice. In addition, we are at least a year away from the new EU data protection legal framework being agreed but some of the stakeholders are using the opportunity of a new law to reopen the validity of Safe Harbor adding to the sense of uncertainty about its future.
If I were to make a prediction about what will happen to Safe Harbor, I would say that the chances of Safe Harbor disappearing altogether are nil. However, it is very likely that the European Commission will be forced to reopen the discussions about the content of the Safe Harbor Principles in an attempt to bring them closer to the requirements of the new EU framework and indeed Binding Corporate Rules. That may actually be a good outcome for everyone because it will help the US Government assert its position that Safe Harbor matches the desired privacy standards – particularly if some tweaks are eventually introduced to incorporate new elements of the EU framework – and it may address for once and for all the perennial concerns of the EU regulators.