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What’s wrong with the GDPR?

Brussels is falling out of love with its favorite product: the EU’s landmark privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Brought online in 2018, the GDPR had the technology sector in upheaval by threatening hefty fines of up to 4 percent of annual turnover for companies that liked to play fast and loose with people’s data.

But since its entry into force, the landmark regulation has come under mounting criticism from privacy activists and even some of Europe’s own data protection authorities for failing to deliver. The Irish Data Protection Commission in particular has been the target of blame, with critics lamenting that its enforcement of the legions of Dublin-headquartered tech companies like Meta and Google under its jurisdiction has been slow and limp.

So far, officials at the EU level have put up a dogged defense of what has become one of their best-known rulebooks, including by publicly pushing back against calls to punish Ireland for what activists say is a failure to bring Big Tech’s data-hungry practices to heel.

Now, one of the European Union’s key voices on data protection regulation is breaking the Brussels taboo of questioning the bloc’s flagship law’s performance so far.

“I think there are parts of the GDPR that definitely have to be adjusted to the future reality,” European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski told POLITICO in an interview earlier this month.

Wiewiórowski, who leads the EU’s in-house privacy regulator, is gathering data protection decision-makers in Brussels Thursday-Friday to open the debate about the GDPR’s failings and lay the groundwork for an inevitable revaluation of the law when the new EU Commission takes office in 2024.

In putting on the conference, the 51-year-old Pole has made questioning whether the EU’s cherished data protection rulebook is up to scratch a cornerstone of his mandate.

“I don’t think that I know the best possible way of enforcing the data protection law. But I would be ashamed if I don’t collect the points of [view] and don’t start to discuss them in a very practical way,” he said.

So far more than a billion euros worth of GDPR fines have been levied — including a record €746 million fine for Amazon and a €225 million penalty for WhatsApp — while several big-ticket penalties for the likes of TikTok and Instagram in the pipeline. But for activists that are still waiting for regulators to rule on a bevy of complaints that they filed over two years ago, the enforcement so far is too little too late.

“After a first moment of shock, a large part of the data industry has learned to live with GDPR without actually changing practices,” said Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems in an earlier statement marking the four-year anniversary of the rulebook coming into force. Of about 50 cross-border cases that his activist group has filed in the last four years, none has seen a final decision yet, he griped.

At the core of these objections is a mechanism called the one-stop-shop, which means companies are regulated by the national oversight organization in the country where they have their European headquarters.

The mechanism has funneled the lion’s share of complaints and large investigations through the Irish Data Protection Commission, because the majority of major tech firms have their EU bases in Dublin. That regulator has faced a relentless onslaught of criticism that it is too weak, too slow or too business-friendly to act as Europe’s chief cop enforcing the landmark rulebook on the world’s largest data firms.

Through Europe’s group of data watchdogs, the European Data Protection Board, national regulators are able to challenge Irish decisions — and so far they have done so for all Irish decisions bar one, triggering a protracted process of dispute resolution that has dragged on for months. The fights have at times been fierce, with the Norwegian regulator at one point declaring that Dublin’s interpretation of the GDPR in a penalty for Facebook would render the rulebook “pointless. ”

The long-winded process and recurring frustrations have some specialists speculating whether the bloc’s privacy rules should be enforced at the European level — especially if it requires challenging corporate heavyweights like Facebook, Google, Apple and others — much like how Brussels handles its competition cases and incoming competition rulebook for Big Tech, the Digital Markets Act.

Wiewiórowski himself hasn’t ruled out the prospect, and name-checked new anti-money laundering regulation, which centralizes enforcement in cases above a certain threshold as worthy of closer attention.

“If you compare the world before GDPR, and the world with GDPR, I see enormous progress,” the privacy chief said. “But I would be very careful in announcing the ultimate success of the GDPR.”

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