independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

World is watching how we deal with the global big guns

DATA Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has been armed with a water pistol to fight the big bazookas that belong to the likes of Facebook and Google.

Data commissioners elsewhere are also small fry compared to the Googles and Facebooks of this world, but at least they have many more staff than Mr Hawkes. He has just 24 staff (although the number will soon rise to 30) to regulate companies such as Google, which recorded after-tax profits of $9.7bn (€7.4bn) last year. His opposite number in France has around 140 staff while his German counterpart has 100 staff at a federal level and about the same number working at local level.

This is far from ideal. Ireland is the European home of many of the world's greatest and most controversial technology companies. We have lured them here with our low taxes but we now have a duty and responsibility to regulate them better than we have regulated other entities in the past.

We cannot afford to become the Wild West of the technology sector so soon after we crashed and burned in the financial sector. With a budget that would hardly pay for the bean bags at Google's offices around the world, it is little wonder that Mr Hawkes usually opts for the non-confrontational "recommendation" route rather than direct enforcement which could lead to lengthy and expensive court cases.

This latest case between the Austrian students and the support from other countries for their action is a reminder that legal action cannot be avoided and the world is watching how we perform as a country.

Clearly the tech companies don't carry the same systemic risk to the economy that the banks did, but how a company such as Facebook uses members' data should be of huge concern to people who use the site.

Even those who don't use Facebook should be concerned about Ireland Inc's reputation for regulation. Mr Hawkes has broad shoulders but it is in all our interests to give him the help he needs.

Irish Independent

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