The news of European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli’s untimely passing away last week has triggered expressions of sympathy, admiration and dismay in many forms, in different media, including those available to IAPP members. The flowers and the crowd at his funeral in Frascati, Italy, last Saturday, seemed to express similar feelings in a silent way. All of it was relevant and well deserved, and may have given his family at least some consolation.
As a longtime friend and close colleague during the more than five years Giovanni served as my assistant supervisor at EDPS, I would like to share some personal memories, to complement what has been written by others.
The first time Giovanni and I met, was in the fall of 1991. This was in the context of the Council Working Party in Brussels set up to look into the first Commission proposal for what eventually became the EU Data Protection Directive. As chairman of the Dutch DPA, I acted as chairman of the Working Party during the Dutch presidency. Giovanni was a member of the Working Party for the Italian Ministry of Justice. As a young magistrate, he had been seconded to the Ministry.
On the second day of a meeting, he told me that he could not stay any longer, as he had been called back for an urgent meeting in Rome. When I asked what the meeting was about, he explained that the Government had decided to take on the Mafia and that his input was required. Although the particular subject has taken more time than expected, it showed that he was involved in big files and knew how to set priorities. During the remaining meetings in Brussels, he was an active participant with a good combination of intelligence, creativity and ambition.
As the key person for data protection in the Ministry of Justice, Giovanni was also involved in the development of the Italian Data Protection Act. When this act was adopted and the Italian DPA was established, it was no surprise that Giovanni was asked to play a central role in it. With Stefano Rodota as the first president of the Garante, he was given large discretion to set up the office and act as its Secretary General.
From 1998 onward, we frequently met in the Article 29 Working Party. Two years before, I had been elected as its first chairman. Stefano Rodota was chosen as its deputy chairman and succeeded me as chairman in 2000. During this entire period, Giovanni played a key supporting role in the work of the group, either or not behind the scenes.
When Rodota left the Garante in 2005, the situation changed considerably for Giovanni, as his chemistry with the new president was more complicated. This was also apparent in the Article 29 Working Party, where Giovanni at some occasions could place a series of footnotes to positions just taken by his president. This in part made him look for an opportunity to continue his career at an international level.
In January 2009, based on a joint decision of the European Parliament and the Council, we began our close working relationship as supervisor and assistant supervisor at EDPS. In my case, it was a second term of five years, in his case it was a first.
In the beginning, he seemed to have problems adjusting to the different political and legal environment. For one thing: no large fleet of service cars, but only transport on the basis of need. I also remember a problem in the first months, when Giovanni had been invited for a private meeting with the Italian president and the most recent annual report at EDPS did not contain his picture. A solution for this problem must have been found very quickly.
On substance, we worked together as a team, virtually always on the basis of consensus. For practical reasons, a system of portfolio’s was developed, where Giovanni was in the lead for supervision and some policy fields, and I would concentrate on more strategic issues, such as the Review of the EU Data Protection framework, and cooperation with other DPA’s. However, all major work at EDPS was done in close harmony and with the support of a very able staff.
Our direct cooperation turned out to last even longer than expected, when the appointment procedure for a new team of Supervisors ran into problems, and we were expected to stay in office for almost another year. However, when I finally stepped down in December 2014, it was to hand over the EDPS office into the good care of Giovanni as my successor and Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the former head of the Polish DPA, as assistant supervisor.
In his term as supervisor, Giovanni has taken a number of initiatives, set out in an ambitious Strategy 2015-2019 “Leading by Example.” Apart from the final steps in the Data Protection Review, which resulted in the GDPR and an equivalent framework for the EU institutions, and the establishment of the European Data Protection Board as a separate legal entity, with a Secretariat provided by the EDPS, the strategy also addressed new subjects.
Among those was a major emphasis on the need for stronger Digital Ethics and a much closer cooperation of all regulators in the digital space, including those active in the field of competition and consumer protection. With these initiatives, Giovanni reached out to new stakeholders and fresh support in a now ongoing global debate.
Indeed, not the least of Giovanni’s accomplishments was that he succeeded in making data protection a global issue. The 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, that took place in Brussels in October 2018, with keynote speakers such as Sir Tim Berners Lee, Director of the World Wide Web consortium, and Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, underlined this perfectly. At the time, I teased Giovanni, saying that Pope Francis was not on the program, but he beat me on this, since an official message from the pope was presented at the public session of the conference.
What Giovanni could not control, however, was the slow but steady progress of the fatal disease that caused his untimely passing away on Tuesday last week, only a few months before the end of his mandate as European Data Protection Supervisor. In a different reality, he might have easily secured a second mandate to finish the work he and his colleagues have initiated. It is now up to others to take on that responsibility.
Apart from all the good qualities mentioned in the various reactions to his death, Giovanni was also a very nice guy, charming and friendly to everyone interested in a good and open conversation. He will be missed by many, not least of course by his family, for many years.
Giovanni, dear friend and colleague, you can now relax and rest in peace. Your legacy is in good hands and will be further developed by others.
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