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Outspoken privacy watchdog tipped to take on Big Tech in UK role

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 27 July 2021, 10:59 am

Our outspoken privacy commissioner, John Edwards, appears to be destined for a big promotion with reports suggesting he has been selected as the UK's next "privacy tsar".

The Sunday Times reported that Edwards, the "Facebook-hating New Zealander", was the preferred candidate to run the UK's powerful Information Commissioner's Office, an independent public body managed by the UK Government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

The ICO has a wider brief than our own Privacy Commission and greater powers to hold to account companies that breach data privacy laws. Edwards attracted international attention when he tweeted in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks that Facebook were 'morally bankrupt pathological liars'.

He later deleted the tweets, but has repeatedly made known his frustration about what he sees as the inadequate measures by major tech companies to protect the privacy of their users and prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation across their platforms.

Edwards has reportedly been put forward for the privacy tsar role by DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden after making it through an independent panel selection process. Prime Minister Bris Johnson would have to approve the appointment, which could see Edwards replace existing ICO boss Elizabeth Denham.

In February, Dowden put big tech companies on notice that the UK Government would move to rein in their influence.

"Tech titans have become the gatekeepers of online knowledge and the custodians of virtual public squares, and the Government won't shy away from intervening to protect the interests of the public when it needs to," he said.

Edwards, a lawyer who has been in the Privacy Commissioner role since 2013, declined to comment to the New Zealand Herald when asked about the appointment reports from the UK.

Edwards' hawkish attitude towards the large tech platforms that hold vast amounts of data on their billions of users, would certainly suit the UK Government's hardening approach to the dominant tech companies.

While new provisions in the Privacy Act have been introduced under Edwards' watch, the privacy Commissioner had wanted legislation with more teeth, including larger fines against companies responsible for major data breaches, which the UK's ICO has the power to impose. 

Edwards would be a loss to the local regulatory scene as a highly engaged and proactive commissioner. But if he has indeed landed the ICO top job, his ability to exert power over the tech companies is set to grow exponentially.


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