“European data protection rules will become a trademark people recognise and trust worldwide”. That is how, in January 2012, Viviane Reding – then Vice-President of the European Commission and EU Justice Commissioner – ended her announcement of the widest reform of privacy and data protection law ever attempted. Six years later, this ambitious aim is becoming a reality. Organisations from around the world and well beyond Europe are grappling with the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and its impact on their data activities. From Australian banks and South American insurers to US universities and Asian telecoms companies, determining the applicability of the GDPR to their operations has become a critical business decision. As many global companies ponder over the right strategy to privacy compliance, a key question has emerged: which organisations, and under which circumstances, are subject to the territorial scope of the GDPR?
At the heart of EU data protection law is the passionate belief in the right to privacy. Indeed, the Treaty of Lisbon has now recognised both privacy and data protection as fundamental rights under EU law. As fundamental rights, there is a sense in which the scope of privacy and data protection must be expanded to the furthest extent possible. Yet, like any other law, it must be clear when and where EU data protection rules apply and the applicable law provision in the current Data Protection Directive has caused some headaches along the way. Whether the proposed new EU regime will prove to be a calming tonic remains to be seen. Today’s technology pays no attention to geographic borders. What do Cloud Computing networks care about the Atlantic Ocean so long as the network is resilient and customers can access their data? Businesses typically structure their systems in order to provide the best commercial proposition which often (but not always) involves cross-border data transfers. Therefore, cross-border data transfers are a part of everyday business. But businesses need to understand which laws apply to their operations to ensure compliance and avoid being chased by regulators or disgruntled customers. Unfortunately, the Directive’s provision concerning when it applies has not always provided much clarity.