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The Privacy Advisor | Dispatch from Albania: ICDPPC calls for increased global cooperation Related reading: EDPS earns ICDPPC innovation award

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The opening session of the 41st annual International Conference for Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners kicked off here in Tirana, Albania, Wednesday. Threads woven throughout the event have included the need for convergence and cooperation, not only among global regulatory authorities, but also among industry, government and civil society as dramatic advances in digital technology continue to challenge laws and regulations, business models, and democracies around the world.

ICDPPC President and U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who was also confirmed as ICDPPC chair for an additional two years, summarized the regulatory group's new policy strategies during her introductory remarks, which call for a more robust and influential global regulatory environment so that data protection authorities can support each other as digital technology continues to transcend national borders.

One notable resolution passed this week would support regulatory cooperation among DPAs and consumer protection and competition authorities. 

"We have resolved to open our gates further," Denham said. "We will share ideas within our membership and engage with the world beyond our community, including a new reference panel to be formed next year." 

The power of surveillance and its effect on human rights also underpins this week's conference. Host country Albania existed under a repressive Communist regime from 1944 through 1991, and the scars of its totalitarian past can be observed in several local museums, which meticulously showcase the breath of surveillance techniques, from a vast state-sanctioned spy organization that leveraged bugs, telephone interception, video and photo surveillance, and Stalinist-style treatment of political dissidents and citizens. 

Republic of Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama offered a sobering but at times humorous welcome to attendees, pointing out that male foreigners entering the country during its communist years would have had to shave their beards. "The only people in the country at that time were Marxist-Leninists, but Karl Marx himself would not have been able to enter without going to the barber first," he joked. 

"We're at an important moment for our civilization," Rama said, "which faces the most threatening attack on personal data and on personal lives." He pointed to the delegates and attendees as the ones who will help protect human dignity and personal information. "We have to fight," he said. "We're living in an era with shamelessness, an era when it's no longer shameless to be acting and saying shameful things, fighting shamelessness is the core. ... I value this network and the knowledge that comes from all of you." 

The ICDPPC also passed a resolution this week on social media and extremist content online. New Zealand Privacy Commissioner John Edwards noted his small country has a history of welcoming innovative business but warned that big tech platforms are causing "enormous social harms." He referenced the effect of this year's horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch during which 50 Muslims were shot dead while the terrorist livestreamed the attack on Facebook. 

"The focus on free expression over other things, like privacy," he said, is a global challenge. 

Carole Cadwalladr

Guardian Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who helped break the Cambridge Analytica news, echoed concerns about the harmful effect tech platforms have on people and democracies around the world, noting that Facebook recently changed its policies to allow for political advertisements even if they contain misinformation. "The vast power and opaque nature these companies have and the profound impacts they're having in countries around the world" is immense, she said. "It's vital that we continue to interrogate them." 

In his keynote address Wednesday, Microsoft President Brad Smith discussed what he considers the front line in privacy: data centers, or what he refers to as "the world's filing cabinet." These vast computer networks continue to grow in immensity and demand for electricity. "What we're doing is storing our data in a fortress," he said. 

On the coattails of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, Smith called for renewed focus on the next 10 years of digital technology and its effect on humanity. The 2020s will be a decade with smarter artificial intelligence, advanced 5G networks and perhaps quantum computing, plus all the innovation and invasion those technologies will bring. To help, he called on governments to craft new laws and regulations with baseline rules that can be integrated with other laws. This also includes greater convergence between data protection authorities, as well as competition, e-commerce and telecommunications regulators. 

Image is from a presentation at the ICDPPC20

Smith also called on industry to take the initiative. "We need to address the issues tech is creating for the world and not be a decade behind. The tech sector needs to step up," he said. "And governments need to move faster, but most importantly, we're going to need to work together." 

Top photo: ICDPPC President and U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

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