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A visionary, a leader, a diplomat and a judge, a regulator and an academic, a devoted father and husband, but more than anything a real "mensch," Giovanni Buttarelli, who died Aug. 20 at 62, was a bigger than life figure. Tall in stature – he had a bigger heart and grand ambition to match. Driving a nuanced and delicate policy agenda through the halls of power from Rome to Brussels to Washington, Buttarelli never for a minute lost the constant twinkle in his eye, his irrepressible charm, gracious spirit and unique largesse.

Buttarelli expertly and astutely carried a torch passed by the founding generation of privacy and data protection visionaries, including Stefano Rodotà, president of the Italian Garante, where Buttarelli was secretary general, Spiros Simitis, the world’s first data protection commissioner in Hesse, and Peter Hustinx, the first European Data Protection Supervisor, from an age of privacy as a fundamental value in the books to a day of data protection on the ground. It is no coincidence that he was the leader who brought Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, and Koen Lenaerts, the president of the Court of Justice of the European Union, to the table, recognizing data protection as a prime concern for businesses and jurisprudence alike.

Buttarelli had an uncanny ability to navigate complex institutions and power brokers. Building on the cornerstone that Hustinx placed, he established the EDPS as a center of gravity for policy and regulation, where EU commissioners, the Council of Ministers, the CJEU and members of European Parliament would turn to for advice on drafting, interpreting and implementing the law. 

Buttarelli’s courage over the past couple of years, advancing an incredibly ambitious agenda even as he battled a serious condition, was palpable. Never missing a beat, a smile or a joke, he not only continued to relish the limelight but also greatly increased its intensity with a herculean global commissioners’ conference that saw the CEO of the world’s most valuable company shuttle to Brussels to claim data protection as the defining policy issue of our day.

The 2018 commissioners’ conference was the apotheosis of everything Buttarelli worked toward. And it was grand, including a call to “Choose Humanity: Putting Dignity back into Digital,” the title of his keynote speech. The conference focused on data ethics, an issue Buttarelli chose to highlight long before it swept to the forefront of attention of global media, politicians and the public at large. He realized that far from being a technical compliance issue, data protection defines and preserves our humanity in an age of rampant automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Indeed, it is a precondition to many of the fundamental rights so cherished by our liberal democracies, including the freedom of speech, equality before the law, and institutional and corporate accountability.

In the same vein, Buttarelli has long ago identified the interface of data protection and competition as a critical juncture for policymakers. He recognized that in an economy where data is a currency and a critical input to production, aggregators of data will develop enormous market power. He called for antitrust and privacy officials to convene to study, define and implement a common strategy to address the issues that we are now seeing escalating worldwide.

Earlier this year, the IAPP recognized Butteralli with its 2019 Privacy Leadership Award, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center handed him its International Privacy Award. These are just two landmarks in an illustrious career spanning the judiciary, academia and executive branch, in Rome and in Brussels, in a period of time of profound technological, economic and geopolitical change. With the policy discussion about the delicate fabric connecting humanity, technology, data and power just nascent, Butteralli — for many of us, Giovanni — will be sorely missed.  

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  • comment Siobhan Guthrie • Aug 21, 2019
    What a really nice piece on Buttarelli.