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UK data chief rejects claims country is ditching privacy rights as ‘bullshit’

The head of the U.K.’s data protection agency, John Edwards, said leaving the EU gave Britain a “competitive advantage” in tackling privacy abuses. 

Following Brexit, the U.K. government has embarked on reforming its data protection rulebook, which has privacy activists worried the country is jettisoning privacy rights in a quest to boost business. 

But speaking to POLITICO ahead of a key privacy conference in London on Wednesday, Edwards gave short shrift to the idea that his office will be muzzled in the country’s bid to turbocharge tech innovation.

“I’m sick of these false dichotomies. I reject the dichotomy of strong regulation versus innovation — it’s bullshit,” he said.

Edwards, who joined the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office in January after serving as New Zealand’s privacy chief, said leaving the EU even gave his office a leg up in regulating the digital economy.

“What we have at the ICO as our competitive advantage, I think, is an ability to move fast and fix things and not be mired down by the bureaucracy of needing to check with 20 colleagues on every bit of wording on every penalty,” he said.

The EU’s system, which involves regulators across the bloc weighing in on cases that involve large companies like Google and Apple, has faced criticism for being slow and bureaucratic.

But Edwards said the ICO would continue to work in lockstep with European counterparts to avoid costly regulatory divergence, and noted a planned memorandum of understanding with Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, which is responsible for policing the vast majority of tech companies in the EU because they have headquarters there.

Keeping Brussels sweet

Edwards also played down fears that the U.K.’s data reform is risking the country’s status as a safe destination for Europeans’ data.

“I am confident that the government is very clear of the value which U.K. industry places on adequacy,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question of it being in peril.”

He noted that it was clear to the U.K. government that any reform that led to the country losing its EU data flows decision — known as data adequacy — would have to “significantly outweigh” the cost of losing the deal, which is up for renewal in three years.

Under the terms of its EU adequacy decision, the U.K. has to maintain a level of privacy protections that’s essentially equivalent to the 27-member bloc’s. 

But there have been concerns that the U.K.’s proposals — especially to remove human review of AI decisions and to bring the ICO under greater government control — imperil that deal.

Addressing those concerns, Edwards said he had “made it very clear” to the government that his office must remain free from undue government influence. 

“I am confident that ministers and officials are fully aware of the concerns and we are working constructively with them, I think, to try and ensure that the policy objectives are met in ways which don’t imperil adequacy or undermine the independence of the office,” he said.

Edwards, an avid Twitter user whose online persona he admitted had “raised eyebrows,” vowed to maintain his freewheeling social media presence, despite reports it’s causing angst amongst his senior colleagues. 

“I will continue to draw the attention of my followers to rapping muppets,” he said.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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