Can I move my data to the EU before Google shifts it to the US?

Jack Schofield
Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Given Google’s recent announcement about moving UK users’ data to US jurisdiction, what’s the best way to migrate to EU-based services? Can you download+upload or crossload your Gmail to another service? And are we in for the same treatment by Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram et al? Sean

Last week Google notified users that “because the UK is leaving the EU, we’ve updated our terms so that a United States-based company, Google LLC, is now your service provider instead of Google Ireland Limited. We’ve also changed our privacy policy to make Google LLC the data controller responsible for your information and for complying with applicable privacy laws.”

This makes sense. There is no reason why two countries that are not in the EU should store data in an EU country. It would be much better, of course, if Google stored UK data in the UK. However, now we are just one of dozens of small countries, it may be hard to justify the cost.

Other online service providers may well make the same decision, after weighing the financial, commercial and legal costs of storing UK users’ data locally.

At the moment, it should be a moot point. UK data is covered by the Data Protection Act 2018, which is the UK’s version of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). One problem is that the UK may lower its data protection and privacy standards to US levels, along with our food and other standards, as part of a US trade deal. Another problem is that even if we maintain EU-level regulations, there is no guarantee that the US will observe them. Given Trump’s actions since taking the US presidency, it is hard to imagine that the situation has improved since Edward Snowden shocked us with his revelations.

Where is your data?

It is hard to be sure where your data is stored because service providers can and do rent space in other people’s hyperscale data centres. However, as far as I know, only Amazon (AWS) and Microsoft have their own server farms in the UK. Google’s are in Dublin in Ireland, Belgium, Denmark and Finland. Facebook’s are in Dublin and Denmark. Microsoft has a site in Dublin, of course, but it also has data centres in London, Durham and Cardiff.

As traffic grows, the major online service providers keep opening new data centres to be closer to their customers. However, outside the US and the EU, coverage can be sparse. Google, for example, has only three data centres – in Chile, Singapore and Taiwan – for the whole southern hemisphere. It doesn’t have any in Africa, or in Brazil, China, India, Russia or Japan.

At the moment, Microsoft is the only major service provider to host UK data in the UK. Presumably, this is a commercial decision based on selling Office 365 and Azure cloud services to the British government and businesses that actually care where their data is stored. However, some less popular Office services are served from overseas. Yammer, Planner and Forms, for example, are still served from Ireland and the Netherlands.

Consumers who use Microsoft’s Outlook.com webmail do not have any control over where their data is stored. As a matter of principle, Microsoft stores it for best performance. Local storage is therefore the most likely option but that could depend on network speeds and whether there is enough local storage available.

Again, it should be a moot point. Microsoft has been pushing for higher data protection standards in the US, and it responded to the GDPR by “levelling up”. That is to say, it applies GDPR standards for all users in all countries, even if the local regulations allow lower standards.

Switching mail services

If you are determined to switch away from Gmail, then Microsoft’s Outlook.com is an option. Both services offer 15GB of free storage and both will import your old emails, which makes for an easy transition. (Microsoft also offers an extra 5GB of storage in OneDrive, which Google doesn’t.) Both services let you reply from your “old” email address if necessary.

However, getting everyone to use a new address takes time and I find Outlook.com’s infinite scrolling pages and broken search/move routine a horrible experience in a browser. If you get a significant amount of email, I would only recommend it with a decent mail program such as Microsoft Outlook (the Office program), eM Client, Mailbird or whatever. Fortunately, the smartphone and Windows 10 apps, which provide a different view of your webmail, are fine.

You could also consider GMX.com, the English-language version of the German email service, GMX.net (from Global Mail eXchange). It is a free service that can send encrypted emails and it includes three somewhat primitive office apps. GMX used to have a very limited amount of storage but now offers 65GB – space for “about half a million emails”, the company says. The idea is to use GMX’s Mail Collector to pick up mail from your other accounts and consolidate it in one place.

It is a couple of decades since I last used GMX but it was very easy to open an account and it sent emails without any problems.

I have mentioned some other alternatives – FastMail and ProtonMail – before. FastMail is a good, independent email service with 24/7 support at reasonable prices: $3 per month with 2GB of storage and $5 per month with 30GB. While the company is Australian, its servers are in Amsterdam and New York, so your data should be inside the EU. Fastmail encrypts the email on its servers and it supports YubiKey access for extra security.

ProtonMail is an encrypted GDPR-compliant privacy-focused email service based in Switzerland, which has high data protection standards. Its free service only offers 0.5GB of storage, which isn’t viable for many users. Its Plus plan with 5GB of storage costs €5 per month or €48 per year.

Other data

You cannot do anything about where Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram et al store your data. These are all proprietary services and they can do whatever they like. If you do not want them to store your data in the US, you will have to download whatever you need (if that’s possible) then delete your accounts.

The same thing is true of most business services until they have grown big enough to start opening data centres overseas, such as Adobe.

However, you do have a choice of online storage services or “cloud drives”, where the technologies are basically interchangeable. I covered some of these services in an earlier answer: Where’s the cheapest place to store 500GB of data online?

If you fancy the Swiss option, pCloud will store 500GB of data for £47.88 per year or 2TB for £95.88 per year. It will also store 2TB for a lifetime for a one-off payment of £350. The assumption is that disk space will keep getting cheaper until the cost of storing 2TB is irrelevant.

When I got my first 10MB hard drive in the early 1980s, disk space cost about $500,000 per gigabyte, so 2TB would have cost a cool $1bn. Today, you can buy 2TB for £50. Sobering thought.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com