Facebook's Meta facing order from Irish regulator to suspend data transfers to US

Wide-ranging privacy case has already led to threats from social media giant

Facebook owner Meta is facing an imminent order from Ireland’s data regulator to suspend data transfers to the United States, in a far-reaching privacy case that has already led to threats from the social media giant to pull its websites from Europe.

Data protection commissioner Helen Dixon sought the suspension in a draft ruling against Meta on Monday, starting the clock on a high-stakes legal process in which the final decision will be subject to the approval of her European counterparts.

“I can confirm that the [data protection commissioner] has today issued a revised preliminary decision to Meta in relation to our transfers inquiry,” said a spokesman for Ms Dixon.

She is the company’s main regulator in the European Union because she has cross-border jurisdiction under general data protection regulation (GDPR) privacy law for big tech platforms such as Meta which have their EU headquarters in Dublin.

However, the ruling has implications far beyond Meta because the disputed legal mechanisms for the transfer of data between the EU and the US are relied on by thousands of business groups throughout the union.

Max Schrems

The Meta case has its origins in a complaint by privacy campaigner Max Schrems, who argues that the data of European citizens is at risk the moment it is transferred to the US. Ms Dixon’s draft directions come after rulings on the case in the Irish and European courts.

Referring the legal procedure under which draft GDPR decisions are circulated to other national and regional regulators in the EU, Ms Dixon’s spokesman said: “Meta has 28 days to make submissions on this preliminary decision at which point we will prepare a draft article 60 decision for other concerned supervisory authorities (CSAs). I’d anticipate that this will happen in April.”

The spokesman for the Irish regulator declined to discuss the substance of her findings. Still, a statement from a Meta spokesman made it clear that the company is facing an order to shut down transfers.

“We have received a revised version of a preliminary draft decision, this is not a final decision and the Irish [data protection commissioner] have asked for further legal submissions,” Meta said.

“Suspending data transfers would be damaging not only to the millions of people, charities and businesses in the EU who use our services, but also to thousands of other companies who rely on EU-US data transfers to provide a global service,” the spokesman added.

“A long-term solution on EU-US data transfers is needed to keep people, businesses and economies connected.”

The case centres on a transatlantic data transfer pact that was struck down by the EU Court of Justice in 2020 because of European fears about the security of personal data once it is transferred to the US.

Negotiators for the EU and US have failed thus far to settle on a replacement agreement to allow transfers to continue. Meta warned this month that it would scrap European services if it is unable to ship data to the US.

Ms Dixon’s inquiry follows High Court orders last year after a judge dismissed Facebook’s challenge to the investigation.