John Edwards takes the reins at the UK's data protection watchdog

Information Commissioner faces a year of upheaval in data law

The Information Commissioner's Office has confirmed that former New Zealand privacy commissioner John Edwards has started his new role as the UK's Information Commissioner.

Top of his in-tray will be helping the government square the EU's data protection rules with its desire to create a new, more "pro-innovation" regime.

Well before he started his new job, Edwards promised it could be done. "The United Kingdom is entitled to take Fleetwood Mac's advice and 'Go your Own Way'," he said in September, citing the soft rock supergroup. "Ensuring the mutual respect of different legal and cultural traditions… lead to different expressions of the same objective," he said.

While legal experts have warned of the dangers of the UK straying too far from the EU's General Data Protection Directive – or risking the adequacy decision which currently allows data sharing between the UK and the EU to support business as usual – his message is don't stop believing.

According to a pre-canned quote announcing his official arrival, he sees his role as working "with those to whom we entrust our data so they are able to respect our privacy with ease whilst still reaping the benefits of data-driven innovation," a line very much in step with the government's desire to "create a more pro-growth and pro-innovation data regime."

The government's consultation on its new proposals for new data protection laws has also provoked alarm among data privacy and ethics campaigners based on its proposals to remove individual's rights to challenge decisions made about them by AI.

The chorus of disapproval was joined by UK's National Data Guardian, who oversees how health data can be used in the UK, who expressed "significant concerns" about the proposals.

Edwards succeeds Elizabeth Denham CBE, whose term as UK Information Commissioner ended last year. In the role since 2016, Denham used her last months to offer a warning about the future independence of the ICO.

"Despite... broad support for the proposals to reform the ICO's constitution, there are some important specific proposals where I have strong concerns because of their risk to regulatory independence," Denham said in October.

"For the future ICO to be able to hold the government to account, it is vital its governance model preserves its independence and is workable, within the context of the framework set by Parliament and with effective accountability."

Edwards was unable to quash the, erm, rumours [really? – ed] that the ICO's independence was under threat, but did say: "Privacy is a right, not a privilege. In a world where our personal data can drive everything from the healthcare we receive to the job opportunities we see, we all deserve to have our data treated with respect."

In 2022, the ICO said it is due to "actively engage" with the government over the proposed reforms to the Data Protection Act. Whether it's a government that trades in "sweet little lies" we'll leave for others to observe. ®

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