Kia ora koutou,
The big news in New Zealand right now is the revelation our Privacy Commissioner John Edwards is the preferred candidate to replace Elizabeth Denham as the U.K. Information Commissioner.
I’ll hold off from giving in-depth reflections on the commissioner’s excellent track record for NZ until the appointment is confirmed (though I come close below). Suffice to say, the U.K.’s gain is very much NZ’s loss. However, I would like to challenge some of the reporting of the announcement, as I believe it portrays the commissioner in an unfair and incorrect light. In the article, “Facebook-hating New Zealander John Edwards in line to be Britain’s next privacy tsar,” the U.K.’s Sunday Times provided a jaundiced account of the commissioner’s approach and achievements. The article states he published off-the-cuff tweets about Facebook, deleted his Facebook account and criticized social media attempts to silence Donald Trump (though not because he supported Trump). He did do all these things, but they don’t tell the whole story.
John Edwards is outspoken. This is not a bad thing. We want and need privacy regulators who are not afraid to call out bad privacy practices, take a stand in the name of the consumer, and keep government agencies and corporations operating within privacy and ethical guardrails. But I do not believe “outspoken” is Edward's most defining quality. Anyone who has worked for or with the commissioner knows him to be an approachable, pragmatic and reasonable regulator. As a former lawyer and privacy professional, he is well aware of the challenges agencies face in complying with privacy laws. One of his goals as commissioner was “to make privacy easy,” and I believe he succeeded at this.
When finally given some teeth — NZ’s reformed Privacy Act gives him the power to issue binding compliance notices and access determinations — he published a Compliance and Regulatory Action Framework intended to provide transparency to agencies about the way he would use these powers. The CARAF, unsurprisingly to us in NZ, made clear the commissioner’s continued focus on education, encouragement and support. Despite his strong public views, the power did not go to his head.
Perhaps most of all, Edwards is a “kiwi.” He has no airs and graces, no pretensions, and he will lay it all out with little ambiguity. NZ agencies and privacy professionals have long benefited from his direct and forthright approach to both enforcement and collaboration. By refusing to take himself too seriously, he was also able to convey important and often groundbreaking messages about privacy issues in a way that captured the audience. He’s generated real and valuable debates about difficult issues, including hate speech, Big Tech’s information asymmetry, privacy and transgender issues and, most importantly of all for NZ, the deficiencies in our long-awaited privacy law reform.
So, if the U.K. does decide to appoint John Edwards as the next information commissioner — and it should — the U.K. will not get a privacy zealot, an activist or an overzealous enforcer. They will get a measured, strong and pragmatic kiwi who could reset the regulatory landscape for privacy in a way that truly engages all sectors and industries, focusing on the big issues and giving all stakeholders something us kiwis really value — a fair go.
Enjoy the digest.
Ngā mihi nui
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