What are the legal considerations for UK companies when setting up data centers abroad?

11 June 2024

As we step further into the digital age, data has become the lifeblood of organisations, driving business decisions and powering innovation. As UK companies expand their operations overseas and set up data centers abroad, they have to grapple with a myriad of legal considerations. These involve the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), data security, data transfer, and processing, among other factors. Understanding these complexities is crucial for ensuring compliance and protecting companies from hefty fines and reputation damage.

Understanding Personal Data under GDPR

At the core of data protection laws like GDPR is the concept of personal data. According to Article 4 of the GDPR, personal data refers to any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person. This could include names, identification numbers, location data or online identifiers.

When a UK company sets up a data centre abroad, it will inevitably be processing and storing personal data. This brings with it multiple legal considerations under the GDPR. For instance, companies must have a lawful basis for processing this data, such as the individual's consent, the necessity of processing for the completion of a contract, or the necessity for compliance with a legal obligation.

GDPR Compliance for Data Centres

Under the GDPR, companies are required to adhere to several key principles in their data processing activities. These principles, which apply regardless of where the data centre is located, are critical for ensuring GDPR compliance.

Firstly, personal data should be processed lawfully, fairly and transparently. Your company must clearly communicate to individuals how their data will be processed and used. This often involves explicit consent from the individual.

Secondly, the data collected should be for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes, and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes.

Thirdly, the personal data should be adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed. In other words, data minimisation should be practiced.

Data Transfer Regulations

The transfer of personal data outside the European Economic Area (EEA) is subject to specific regulations under the GDPR. If your company's data centre is established outside the EEA, you must ensure that the country provides an adequate level of data protection, as determined by the European Commission.

Alternatively, your company must have appropriate safeguards in place. These may be provided through binding corporate rules, standard data protection clauses adopted by the European Commission, or an approved code of conduct or certification mechanism. For example, the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield was a popular framework used by companies to comply with data protection requirements when transferring personal data from the EU to the United States, before it was invalidated in 2020.

Legal Requirements and Security Measures

On a more practical level, data centres must be designed and operated with stringent security measures in place to protect the personal data stored within. These security requirements are not specifically outlined in the GDPR, but the regulation does mandate that companies implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk.

For example, this could include measures like encryption, pseudonymisation, disaster recovery solutions and regular testing of the effectiveness of these measures. In the event of a data breach, companies are legally required to notify the relevant supervisory authority, and in some cases, the affected individuals.

Navigating Local Laws and Regulations

Finally, it is crucial to remember that the legal considerations do not stop at the GDPR. In setting up data centres abroad, UK companies must navigate the local laws and regulations of the host country. This can be a complex task, as data protection laws vary widely across the world. Understanding these local nuances and ensuring compliance with them is crucial for legal and smooth operations.

Whether it's complying with China's strict data localisation laws, or dealing with the lack of comprehensive data protection legislation in many countries, the local legal landscape can significantly impact your data centre operations. Seeking local legal advice is often crucial to ensure a thorough understanding of these local laws and regulations.

In conclusion, setting up data centres abroad involves navigating a complex web of legal considerations, ranging from GDPR compliance to local laws and regulations. By understanding these considerations and proactively addressing them, UK companies can ensure the smooth and legal operation of their overseas data centres, safeguarding their reputation and bottom line.

Controller-Processor Agreements and Data Residency

Establishing data centers abroad also brings into focus the relationship between the data controller and the data processor, and the importance of clear contractual arrangements between them. The data controller is the entity that determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data, while the data processor is the entity that processes personal data on behalf of the controller.

Under Article 28 of the GDPR, the controller must only use processors that provide sufficient guarantees to implement appropriate technical and organisational measures, so that the processing will meet the requirements of the GDPR and ensure the protection of the rights of the data subject. Any processing by a processor must be governed by a contract or other legal act that sets out the subject matter and duration of the processing, the nature and purpose of the processing, the type of personal data and categories of data subjects, and the obligations and rights of the controller.

Another crucial point to consider is data residency. This refers to the physical or geographical location of an organisation's data. Data residency regulations can have significant implications for the management and movement of data. Certain countries or regions may have strict data residency laws that require data to be stored within its boundaries. The handling of data in accordance with these laws is a crucial aspect to consider when setting up data centers abroad.

For instance, Russia’s data residency laws require that the personal data of Russian citizens be stored and processed on servers located within the country. Such laws can pose a challenge for UK companies setting up data centers outside their home country and would require close consultation with local experts and legal advisors.

Cross Border Data Transfer and Adequacy Regulations

As the digital age propels more companies to venture into international markets, cross border data transfer has become a common practice. However, it brings its own set of legal considerations under the GDPR and other relevant legal frameworks.

The transfer of personal data to countries outside the EEA is subject to strict regulations. The GDPR allows such transfers only if the European Commission has made an adequacy decision about the recipient country. Such decisions are made on the basis of an assessment of the level of data protection in the country, territory, sector or international organisation in question.

The adequacy regulations provide a level playing field for businesses and individuals in the EEA and the recipient country, ensuring that the rights and freedoms of data subjects are not compromised by the transfer of their data across borders.

If an adequacy decision is not in place, the GDPR provides for alternative mechanisms to ensure the protection of transferred data. These include binding corporate rules, standard contractual clauses, codes of conduct, and certification mechanisms, among others. Companies must also be prepared to update these mechanisms as regulations evolve, as was the case when the EU-US Privacy Shield was invalidated.


The task of setting up data centers abroad is not just a technical challenge, but a legal one too. The array of legal considerations for UK companies ranges from GDPR compliance, data transfer regulations, controller-processor agreements, data residency, cross border data transfer to local laws and regulations.

While the GDPR provides a robust framework for the protection of personal data, it is essential for companies to have a clear understanding of its requirements and implications. They must ensure that their data processing activities are lawful, transparent, and respect the rights and freedoms of data subjects.

Furthermore, companies must be mindful of the specific legal and regulatory landscape of the host country, as data protection laws vary widely around the world. Consulting local experts and legal advisors can prove invaluable in this respect.

To navigate the complexities of setting up data centers abroad, UK companies must stay informed, seek expert advice and put in place robust data protection and compliance mechanisms. Doing so will not only help ensure the smooth and legal operation of their data centers but also safeguard their reputation and sustainability in an increasingly digital and data-driven world.

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