The government today confirmed plans to appoint John Edwards, currently New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, as the next head of the UK’s data watchdog.
The appointment is part of a planned overhaul of the UK’s data laws that will herald a new era of post-Brexit policy as ministers look to use online information to fuel economic growth.
It also signals the introduction of another tech sceptic into the corridors of power amid growing scrutiny of powerful Silicon Valley firms.
But who is John Edwards, and will the new watchdog sink his teeth into tech?
It may not seem like the most glamorous job, but there’s no doubting the importance of the information commissioner, who leads efforts to protect Brits’ data in the digital age.
This is likely why ministers have opted for experience, with culture secretary Oliver Dowden recommending seasoned privacy professional John Edwards for the job.
Edwards is currently serving his second term as New Zealand’s privacy commissioner (the equivalent to the UK’s information commissioner), having taken up the role in 2014.
He was responsible for implementing the country’s Privacy Act 2020, and chaired the Global Privacy Assembly from 2014 until 2017.
Prior to this Edwards spent 20 years practising law, with a particular focus on information law, in Wellington.
He will now appear before MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee for pre-appointment scrutiny. If confirmed, he will replace current information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
While the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has traditionally been responsible for protecting Brits’ privacy rights, the government has made it clear that Edwards will take on a beefier remit.
A consultation will soon be launched on how to shake up the UK’s data regime to cut out the “pointless bureaucracy” of the EU’s GDPR regime, boost growth and create jobs.
Dowden has hinted that this could include the scrapping of “endless” web cookie requests, as well as other measures to help speed up cross-border data transfers.
Edwards will be charged with leading this process while ensuring a balance is struck between stimulating trade and upholding privacy standards.
This will be welcome news for smaller players in the digital marketing sector, which have long complained that tough EU privacy rules were hampering growth.
“It is critical that the new commissioner prioritises finding a better balance between innovation and privacy, so our industry can help build public trust in data sharing and attain sustainable growth across the digital economy,” says Chris Combemale, chief executive of the Data & Marketing Association. “
There’s no shortage of people ready to give their views on Big Tech, but it’s fair to say Edwards has been more vocal in his criticism than most.
The privacy tsar launched a tirade against Facebook in the aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre, describing the social media giant as “morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide”, though he later deleted the tweets.
He’s also attacked both Facebook and Twitter for shutting down Donald Trump’s accounts this year, saying: “The Twitter and Facebook bans are arbitrary, cynical, unprincipled and further evidence that regulation of social media platforms is urgently required.”
These views are likely to sit well with the government’s broader plans to crack down on Big Tech amid concerns platforms’ escalating power is stifling competition and harming users.