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Issue Brief: The Great Transatlantic Data Disruption

ICLE Issue Brief A new issue brief published jointly by ICLE and the Progressive Policy Institute looks at looming threats to transatlantic data flows between the U.S. and EU that power an estimated $333 billion in annual trade of digitally enabled services.

(This issue brief is a joint publication of the International Center for Law & Economics and the Progressive Policy Institute)

Executive Summary

Data is, logically enough, one of the pillars supporting the modern digital economy. It is, however, not terribly useful on its own. Only once it has been collected, analyzed, combined, and deployed in novel ways does data obtain its highest utility. This is to say, a large part of the value of data is its ability to flow throughout the global connected economy in real time, permitting individuals and firms to develop novel insights that would not otherwise be possible, and to operate at a higher level of efficiency and safety.

Although the global transmission of data is critical to every industry and scientific endeavor, those data flows increasingly run into barriers of various sorts when they seek to cross national borders. Most typically, these barriers take the form of data-localization requirements.

Data localization is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of requirements that nations set to govern how data is created, stored, and transmitted within their jurisdiction. The aim of data-localization policies is to restrict the flow of data across a nation’s borders, often justified on grounds of protecting national security interests and/or sensitive information about citizens.

Data-localization requirements have in recent years been at the center of a series of legal disputes between the United States and the European Union (EU) that potentially threaten the future of transatlantic data flows. In October 2015, in a decision known as Schrems I, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) overturned the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, which had for the prior 15 years governed customer data transmitted between the United States and the EU. The principles were replaced in February 2016 by a new framework agreement known as the EU–US Privacy Shield, until the CJEU declared that, too, to be invalid in a July 2020 decision known as Schrems II. (Both complaints were brought by Austrian privacy advocate Max Schrems).

The current threatened disruption to transatlantic data flows highlights the size of the problem caused by data-localization policies. According to one estimate, transatlantic trade generates upward of $5.6 trillion in annual commercial sales, of which at least $333 billion is related to digitally enabled services.[3] Some estimates suggest that moderate increases in data-localization requirements would result in a €116 billion reduction in exports from the EU.

One difficulty in precisely quantifying the full impact of strict data-localization practices is that the list of industries engaged in digitally enabled trade extends well beyond those that explicitly trade in data. This is because “it is increasingly difficult to separate services and goods with the rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ and the greater bundling of goods and services. At the same time, goods are being substituted by services … further shifting the regulatory boundaries between what is treated as goods and services.” Thus, there is reason to believe that the true value of digitally enabled trade to the global economy is underestimated.

Moreover, as we discuss infra, there is reason to suspect that data flows and digitally enabled trade have contributed a good deal of unmeasured economic activity that partially offsets the lower-than-expected measured productivity growth seen in the both the European Union and the United States over the last decade and a half. In particular, heavy investment in research and development by firms globally has facilitated substituting the relatively more efficient work of employees at firms for unpaid labor by individuals. And global data flows have facilitated the creation of larger, more efficient worldwide networks that optimize time use by firms and individuals, and the development of resilient networks that can withstand shocks to the system like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Schrems II decision, the court found that provisions of U.S. national security law and the surveillance powers it grants to intelligence agencies do not protect the data of EU citizens sufficiently to justify deeming U.S. laws as providing adequate protection (known as an “adequacy” decision). In addition to a national “adequacy” decision, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also permits firms that wish to transfer data to the United States to rely on “standard contractual clauses” (SCC) that guarantee protection of citizen data. However, a prominent view in European policy circles—voiced, for example, by the European Parliament—is that, after Schrems II, no SCC can provide a lawful basis for data transfers to the United States.

Shortly after the Schrems II decision, the Irish Data Protection Commission (IDPC) issued a preliminary draft decision against Facebook that proposed to invalidate the company’s SCCs, largely on the same grounds that the CJEU used when invalidating the Privacy Shield. This matter is still pending, but a decision from the IDPC is expected imminently, with the worst-case result being an order that Facebook suspend all transatlantic data transfers that depend upon SCCs. Narrowly speaking, the IDPC decision only immediately affects Facebook. However, if the draft decision is finalized, the SCCs of every other firm that transfers data across the Atlantic may be subject to invalidation under the same legal reasoning.

Although this increasingly restrictive legal environment for data flows has been building for years, the recent problems are increasingly breaking into public view, as national DPAs grapple with the language of the GDPR and the Schrems decisions. The Hamburg DPA recently issued a public warning that the use of the popular video-conference application Zoom violates GDPR. The Portuguese DPA issued a resolution forbidding its National Institute of Statistics from transferring census data to the U.S.-based Cloudflare, because the SCCs in the contract between the two entities were deemed insufficient in light of Schrems II.

The European Data Protection Supervisor has initiated a program to “monitor compliance of European institutions, bodies, offices and agencies (EUIs) with the ‘Schrems II’ Judgement.” As part of this program, it opened an investigation into Amazon and Microsoft in order to determine if Microsoft’s Office 365 and the cloud-hosting services offered by both Amazon and Microsoft are compatible with GDPR post-Schrems II. Max Schrems, who brought the original complaint against Facebook, has through his privacy-activist group submitted at least 100 complaints as of August 2020 alone, which will undoubtedly result in scores of cases across multiple industries.

The United States and European Union are currently negotiating a replacement for the Privacy Shield agreement that would allow data flows between the two economic regions to continue. But EU representatives have warned that, in order to comply with GDPR, there will likely be nontrivial legislative changes necessary in the United States, particularly in the sensitive area of national-security monitoring. In effect, the European Union and the Unites States are being forced to rethink the boundaries of national law in the context of a digital global economy.

This issue brief first reviews the relevant literature on the importance of digital trade, as well as the difficulties in adequately measuring it. One implication of these measurement difficulties is that the impact of disruptions to data flows and digital trade are likely to be far greater than even the large effects discovered through traditional measurement suggest.

We then discuss the importance of network resilience, and the productivity or quasi-productivity gains that digital networks and data flows provide. After a review of the current policy and legal challenges facing digital trade and data flows, we finally urge the U.S. and EU negotiating parties to consider longer-term trade and policy changes that take seriously the role of data flows in the world economy.

Read the full issue brief here.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Against the Jones Act

TOTM Economist Josh Hendrickson asserts that the Jones Act is properly understood as a Coasean bargain. In this view, the law serves as a subsidy to the U.S. . . .

Economist Josh Hendrickson asserts that the Jones Act is properly understood as a Coasean bargain. In this view, the law serves as a subsidy to the U.S. maritime industry through its restriction of waterborne domestic commerce to vessels that are constructed in U.S. shipyards, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed. Such protectionism, it is argued, provides the government with ready access to these assets, rather than taking precious time to build them up during times of conflict.

Read the full piece here.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Irish Decision Will Raise Stakes to Resolve Transatlantic Data Trade

TOTM We can expect a decision very soon from the High Court of Ireland on last summer’s Irish Data Protection Commission (“IDPC”) decision that placed serious . . .

We can expect a decision very soon from the High Court of Ireland on last summer’s Irish Data Protection Commission (“IDPC”) decision that placed serious impediments in the way of using “standard contractual clauses” (SCC) to transfer data across the Atlantic. That decision, coupled with the July 2020 Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decision to invalidate the Privacy Shield agreement between the European Union and the United States, has placed the future of transatlantic trade in jeopardy.

Read the full piece here.

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Data Security & Privacy

Lawmaking and Legislative Procedure in the European Union

TL;DR The process of writing and passing laws in the European Union primarily involves three institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU. The Commission proposes legislation, and the Parliament and the Council approve, amend, or reject it.

Background…

The process of writing and passing laws in the European Union primarily involves three institutions: the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the EU. The Commission proposes legislation, and the Parliament and the Council approve, amend, or reject it.

The Parliament is the EU’s legislature. It represents all EU citizens and is directly elected by them. The Council of the European Union represents the governments of the individual member states. The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive body responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation and ensuring, together with the Court of Justice, that these laws are properly applied by member states. It consists of one commissioner from each member state, for a total of 27.

Read the full explainer here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Digital Markets Act

TL;DR The European Union has unveiled draft legislation that seeks to tame so-called “gatekeeper” Big Tech firms. If passed into law, this Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) would create a list of “dos and don’ts” by which the platforms must abide, such as allowing interoperability with third parties and sharing data with rivals.

Background…

The European Union has unveiled draft legislation that seeks to tame so-called “gatekeeper” Big Tech firms. If passed into law, this Digital Markets Act (“DMA”) would create a list of “dos and don’ts” by which the platforms must abide, such as allowing interoperability with third parties and sharing data with rivals. In short, the DMA would give the European Commission significant powers to tell tech companies how to run their businesses.

But…

The DMA essentially shifts competition enforcement against gatekeeper platforms away from an “effects” analysis that weighs costs and benefits to a “blacklist” approach that proscribes all listed practices as harmful. This will constrain platforms’ ability to experiment with new products and make changes to existing ones, limiting their ability to innovate and compete.

Read the full explainer here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Amazon is Not Welcome in France. And That Reflects French Double Standards

TOTM As the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of many stores, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar shops have been stepping up efforts to facilitate online deliveries while . . .

As the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of many stores, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar shops have been stepping up efforts to facilitate online deliveries while ensuring their workers’ safety. Without online retail, lockdown conditions would have been less tolerable, and confinement measures less sustainable. Yet a recent French court’s ruling on Amazon seems to be a justification for making life more difficult for some of these businesses and more inconvenient for people by limiting consumer choice. But in a context that calls for as much support to economic activity and consumer welfare as possible, that makes little sense. In fact, the court’s decision is symptomatic of how countries use industrial policy to treat certain companies with double standards.

Read the full piece here.

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Innovation & the New Economy

Efficient Cartels and the Public Interest Defence – Do They Exist?

TOTM The concept of a “good” or “efficient” cartel is generally regarded by competition authorities as an oxymoron. A cartel is seen as the worst type . . .

The concept of a “good” or “efficient” cartel is generally regarded by competition authorities as an oxymoron. A cartel is seen as the worst type of antitrust violation and one that warrants zero tolerance. Agreements between competitors to raise prices and share the market are assumed unambiguously to reduce economic welfare. As such, even if these agreements are ineffective, the law should come down hard on attempts to rig prices. In this post, I argue that this view goes too far and that even ‘hard core’ cartels that lower output and increase prices can be efficient, and pro-competitive. I discuss three examples of where hard core cartels may be efficient.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

Is European Competition Law Protectionist? Unpacking the Commission’s Unflattering Track Record

TOTM In a new ICLE Issue Brief, we question whether there is any merit to these claims of protectionism. We show that, since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003, US firms have borne the lion’s share of monetary penalties imposed by the Commission for breaches of competition law.

Last month, the European Commission slapped another fine upon Google for infringing European competition rules (€1.49 billion this time). This brings Google’s contribution to the EU budget to a dizzying total of €8.25 billion (to put this into perspective, the total EU budget for 2019 is €165.8 billion). Given this massive number, and the geographic location of Google’s headquarters, it is perhaps not surprising that some high-profile commentators, including former President Obama and President Trump, have raised concerns about potential protectionism on the Commission’s part.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection

The Tariff Act is indeed protectionist — and that’s how Congress wants it

TOTM Although not always front page news, International Trade Commission (“ITC”) decisions can have major impacts on trade policy and antitrust law. Scott Kieff, a former . . .

Although not always front page news, International Trade Commission (“ITC”) decisions can have major impacts on trade policy and antitrust law. Scott Kieff, a former ITC Commissioner, recently published a thoughtful analysis of Certain Carbon and Alloy Steel Products — a potentially important ITC investigation that implicates the intersection of these two policy areas. Scott was on the ITC when the investigation was initiated in 2016, but left in 2017 before the decision was finally issued in March of this year.

Read the full piece here.

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Antitrust & Consumer Protection