‘Facebook-hating’ NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards tipped to be UK’s privacy tsar

New Zealand’s front-foot Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has been tipped to fill a top watchdog role in the UK, leading a war on big tech on behalf of No 10.

A report by the UK’s Sunday Times – headlined “Facebook-hating New Zealander John Edwards in line to be Britain’s privacy tsar”says Edwards is the favourite to be the new head of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

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An independent panel selected Edwards as the preferred candidate and he was then recommended for the role by Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Times says.

The appointment is awaiting Boris Johnson’s approval, the paper says.

When approached by the Herald this afternoon, Edwards said, “I won’t be making any comment at this stage.” But he did appear to tacitly confirm events as he publically tweeted “not hating”.

The Privacy Commissioner gained international attention in March 2019 in the wake of the Christchurch mosque massacres, when he publicly scalded Facebook for its initial lack of comment, saying “Your silence is an insult to our grief.”

The following month he made news around the world again when, on Twitter, he accused Facebook of being “morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide (Myanmar), facilitate foreign undermining of democratic institutions #DontGiveaZuck.” Edwards stood by his tweet, but also deleted it, saying it had led to “toxic and misinformed” comments.

More recently, he has been seen chairing a session at an International Privacy Day conference where Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed new privacy measures (which, rarely for a Big Move, got staunch support from Edwards) and warning the Waikato DHB it could be liable for patients’ data being spilled onto the internet.

Hiring Edwards would chime with UK government rhetoric on cracking down on big tech firms, The Sunday Times says.

Johnson’s Conservative government has launched the Online Safety Bill to hold social media companies to account over harmful content and created the Digital Markets Unit at the competition watchdog to tackle anti-competitive behaviour by tech giants.

The legislative overhaul comes after Britain’s exit from the EU, whose citizens are covered by the highly regarded General Data Protection Regulation.

Wellington lawyer Edwards was first appointed Privacy Commissioner in 2013 following a series of senior civil service roles and a stint running his own law firm.

A role with the bite he's always wanted

If he is confirmed in the UK role, Edwards will be able to finally levy the huge fines he considers are necessary to toe the line.

An overhaul of NZ’s Privacy Act, which came into force in March, gives our Privacy Commissioner the power to impose penalties of up to $10,000. Edwards had been pushing for $1m.

In the UK, the ICO can fine firms up to £17.5m or 4 per cent of their global turnover, whichever is higher.

Whoever fills the role will take over from departing ICO head Elizabeth Denham.

Denham ran into personal controversy when a transparency release revealed she had been working from home from Canada for months. And under her reign, the ICO also ran into flak as homes of potential NHS whistleblowers were raided after CCTV footage leaked in June of Health Minister Matt Hancock in an embrace with a senior aide – a breach of Covid rules.

NHS advocates said the raids would discourage further whistleblowing.

The Times says Edwards’ chief opposition for ICO head comes from London Stock Exchange chief privacy officer Vivienne Artz, has also been deemed “appointable”, sources said.

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