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New UK Information Commissioner begins term

John Edwards, the new UK Information Commissioner begins his term from Tuesday the 4th of January. Beginning a five year term, he joins the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) from a previous role as New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner for eight years, and has 20 years of experience as a barrister, specialising in information law.

Speaking at his pre-appointment hearing with the Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, Edwards summed up his priority and focus within his new role:

“Look, what I really want to do is to make privacy easy. I want to make data protection easy--easy for industry to implement at low cost, easy for consumers to exercise privacy-friendly choices in their marketplace, and easy for people to access remedies when things go wrong. One of my priorities is to look at what services the ICO can provide at the centre.”

On the subject of the UK’s proposed divergence from the EU GDPR, Edwards emphasised that New Zealand has EU adequacy, despite the law not being identical with EU GDPR, and that it is unlikely that the UK will diverge from the basic essence of the EU GDPR principles:

“There is plenty of scope within the European Commission’s adequacy determinations for recognition of difference. New Zealand is not identical to GDPR, but it is recognised as adequate… It is very unlikely that the UK will depart from the essence that informs almost every privacy and data protection law in the world, and it goes back to those OECD principles that started back in 1980. There is plenty of scope.”

When questioned about the UK potentially aligning itself with the USA more in a post-Brexit world, Edwards advised caution:

“The one significant thing that the UK needs to be conscious of in moving close to the US before it has crystallised some of those movements into a unified federal approach is the very antagonistic approach that we see Europe take to the US. If the UK aligns closely to the US and Europe sees that as a mechanism for sidestepping the jurisprudence and the decisions of the European Court and so on in striking down Privacy Shield and Safe Harbour, that could complicate UK-Europe relationships or trade and data flows. These are the very real challenges that lie ahead.”

The DCMS Committee Chair, Julian Knight MP welcomed the appointment of Edwards:

“He clearly understands the challenges facing the UK in a fast-moving digital landscape and the role the ICO will play. His experience as New Zealand’s Privacy Commissioner and openness to working with other countries will be valuable in taking a robust approach on areas such as data protection.”

Edwards will be picking up current ongoing work within the ICO including:

  • The Online Safety Bill - currently progressing through Parliament with the aim of tackling harmful online content.

  • Data: A New Direction - following the public consultation launched last year to present the proposals for a post-Brexit data protection provision, the government response is expected in the spring.

  • Ongoing legal action against various “tech-giants”

Previous Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham has known Edwards for over a decade and has described him as an “international leader”:

“I’m absolutely delighted that he has been the successful candidate for Information Commissioner because I think he brings pragmatism, and deep content experience, I know he’s respected around the world.”

Edwards takes up the role at a critical time for the ICO, as increasing digitisation of life in the UK presents new challenges in data protection, data sensitivity and the myriad of increased risks associated with it.

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