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Hawkes denies Irish light-touch on Web

Thursday, May 29 12:33:24

Ireland's data protection commissioner, Billy Hawkes, has denied that his office, responsible for the privacy of nearly a billion Internet users thanks to our position as a global tech hub, goes easy on protection.

Speaking to the New York Times, he said that resentment about Ireland's ability to attract the likes of Google and Facebook to our shores and our low corporate tax rate lies behind the criticism.

"The biggest change is the number of controversial companies that fall under my remit," said Mr. Hawkes, who will step down from his role later this year. "It's a shift from a domestic to an international focus."

His role is set to expand even further under proposed privacy changes in Europe expected to be approved next year.

The legislation will allow companies that meet the data protection requirements in one European Union country to operate freely across the Continent. Now, companies like Microsoft and Google have to comply with regulators in each of the union's 28 member states, which often take different views on how local privacy rules should be enforced.

While European lawmakers are still negotiating the details, legal experts expect the Irish data regulatory authority to be the main port of call for privacy complaints against American tech companies, as many of their international headquarters are based in Ireland, the New York Times reported.

The new rules also will most likely add to scrutiny of his decisions. Some privacy advocates in Europe already say that Ireland's authority takes a lax view toward protecting individuals' online information compared with others, including those in Germany and France.

"At the back of this debate is a resentment of the Irish tax regime," said Mr. Hawkes, who disputed the accusations that Ireland had a light touch on policing privacy concerns. "I am faced with the paradox of devoting a huge amount of resources to international companies that have little impact on Irish residents."

The reputation of Mr. Hawkes and the Irish data protection authority has come under pressure after a lengthy legal challenge from Max Schrems, an Austrian who complained that Facebook routinely broke Europe's strict data privacy rules.

The case centred on allegations by Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, that the American intelligence agency gained access to large amounts of user data from companies, including Facebook. Mr. Schrems, who previously brought successful privacy complaints against Facebook in Ireland, said that the N.S.A.'s activities breached European privacy rules, but the Irish data protection regulator declined to investigate.

Mr. Schrems is challenging that ruling in the Irish courts, and a decision to review his accusations could be made as early as next month.

Mr. Hawkes says that despite cases like Mr. Schrems's, his office has taken steps to improve how American tech companies monitor the online data of both European and global users. His office has the ability to shut down companies that do not comply with Ireland's data rules, but it cannot fine companies for wrongdoing.

In 2011, his office reviewed Facebook's privacy settings in response to complaints about the company's stance towards data protection. The Irish authority, which has responsibility for all of Facebook's data outside of North America, forced the social network to make its terms and conditions clearer and to give users greater control over how their information is used.