When data protection law (e.g. Chapter V of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Article 25 of the prior Data Protection Directive) talks about a “transfer” of personal data to a third country, no one quite knows what it means: “transfer” is not defined. There’s been a fair bit of legal and academic discussion about this.
But, as far back as 2002 it has been established law that, if I upload personal data onto an internet page, so that that data becomes accessible to people outside the EU, this does not constitute a transfer of data to a third country. The Court of Justice of the European Union held so, in the case of Lindqvist (C-101/01), pointing out that, if that were the case
every time that personal data are loaded onto an internet page, that transfer would necessarily be a transfer to all the third countries where there are the technical means needed to access the internet
with the result that, if even one third country in the world did not ensure adequate protection of personal data, EU Member States – following, as they must, EU data protection law – would be obliged to prevent any personal data being placed on the internet. As a matter of public policy, and indeed of common sense, that could not have been the intention of the legislator.
But notably (and oddly, given its generally relaxed approach to international transfer issues) the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), eighteen years on from Lindqvist appears to take an opposing view, saying
Putting personal data on to a website will often result in a restricted transfer. The restricted transfer takes place when someone outside the EEA accesses that personal data via the website…If you load personal data onto a UK server which is then available through a website, and you plan or anticipate that the website may be accessed from outside the EEA, you should treat this as a restricted transfer.
Which is all well and good, but, if that is indeed the case, then how does ICO find a basis in Chapter V of GDPR for its transfer of my personal data (and others’) to, say, Syria, or South Sudan, or Cambodia, or anywhere else in the world? There is no adequacy decision in place, (presumably) no standard contractual clauses or other appropriate safeguards, and no apparent Article 49 derogation. Is this, then, an unlawful transfer?
I’m just mightily relieved we haven’t got some bizarre constitutional crisis on the immediate horizon, under which these issue are going to get even more complex.