John Edwards – The UK’s next Information Commissioner

Elizabeth Denham CBE is due to reach the end of her twice-extended term as Information Commissioner on 30th November 2021. Denham will leave in her place a vacancy for the UK’s next Information Commissioner. But who is the new Information Commissioner and what will this mean for data protection in the UK?

John Edwards has been confirmed as the UK’s next Information Commissioner, and his post is due to commence on 3rd January 2022. But exactly who is John Edwards, and what will happen between the end of November and the start of January?

Who is John Edwards?

John Edwards has been the Privacy Commissioner for New Zealand since 2014. Before holding the Privacy Commissioner post, Edwards practised law for two decades, specialising in information law. He has also been a watchdog for people in compulsory mental health care and intellectual disability services. Additionally, he chaired the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners – now the Global Privacy Assembly – from 2014-2017.

Needless to say, it’s unsurprising his experience would put him at the forefront of candidates for the role.

What does this mean for UK data protection?

From 1st December and 2nd January when the Information Commissioner post is unoccupied, the ICO’s Deputy Chief Executive, Paul Arnold, will be designated as the ICO’s accounting officer. The Commissioner’s regulatory duties will be delegated to deputy commissioners during this time to ensure the continuity of regulatory decision-making.

But with Edwards in the Information Commissioner’s seat, will much change?

Denham has faced some scathing criticism in her role as Information Commissioner. The Telegraph published an article accusing Denham of doing little to curb nuisance calls or issue fines, stating
The ICO’s budget has doubled in five years but the number of firms fined for badgering, bullying and pestering the public has been static”.

But Denham has made some ground-breaking changes to strategy and plans during her post. Her office has seen the UK through the implementation of GDPR, the UK’s biggest data reform in modern history. It has also recently introduced a Children’s Code to protect children’s data rights and freedoms.

What can we expect from John Edwards?

Once John Edwards takes up the post, he faces a big task. The UK government wants to reform privacy laws to make them more business-friendly. With this reform, the government aims to spur economic growth following the recession caused by COVID.

However, now the UK has left the EU and has been granted an adequacy decision based on the current UK GDPR, Edwards may have to tread lightly to ensure the adequacy decision is maintained in four years.

In New Zealand, Edwards has recently seen the nation through the implementation of the Privacy Act 2020. New Zealand has also been granted adequacy by the European Commission. With his success so far, it would be safe to assume Edwards is up to the task.

Another praise Edwards has received is for his no-nonsense approach to social media giants. Denham has received criticism for a lacklustre approach to social networks and AdTech – and the ICO is even facing a lawsuit for doing so.

John Edward’s comments about Facebook

John Edwards has previously spoken out against social networking giant, Facebook, following the 2019 Christchurch Mosque massacre.

In a now-deleted tweet, Edwards described Facebook as “morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide”.

Facebook launched in 2004 under the name TheFacebook, a social networking service for Harvard Business Students. These days, it could be argued that Facebook is more a data and advertising company than a social network, with 2.91 billion active monthly users across the globe. Facebook has famously been tied up in many scandals and accusations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a psychological experiment on the mental health of 700,000. Suspicion on how the company uses data and prevents (or enables) users to spread hate speech and incite violence has been under question for years.

Despite any of his own opinions, the Information Commissioner’s Office upholds information rights in the public interest. The office should, therefore, be impartial in its treatment of data processors. While Edwards has said on record that he will act with fairness and impartiality in any dealings and investigations, can we expect a firmer Information Commissioner this time round?

Only time will tell.

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Image of John Edwards from PrivacyMaven. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.