Why the Irish regulator is listened to abroad
The Commissioner's annual report now attracts global interest as media and tech firms look for signs around what Europe's most influential data regulator might do next. Within minutes of the annual report's publication this week, media organisations such as Bloomberg and 'The New York Times' were flashing headlines and dissecting some of the report's main points
The reason is simple. Positions that the Portarlington-based office take have far-reaching implications for some of the world's biggest companies, such as Apple, Google and Facebook.
It is why most big web companies now consult with the Irish office before rolling out major new global features. If a new service or feature gets a thumbs down from the Irish regulator, a company like Facebook or Apple can't release it. Apple "proactively" consulted the Irish office before launching map-enhancing photo-vehicles around the streets of Ireland and the UK. Facebook's updated terms and conditions, released earlier this year, are also influenced by this process.
For the most part, big tech companies like the regulator's approach. This is what Facebook's director of public policy Richard Allan said recently about why the social media giant prefers dealing with the Irish office.
"They provide advice and guidance, that means that we fix things so that they don't have to bring out the big stick," said Allan. "We're not scared to go and see them because they will drag us into court the next day. If they were merely a 'big stick' regulator, frankly, we would be incentivised not to take things to them."
Facebook's experience is not unique. US companies are now actively choosing Ireland as a data regulation home in Europe. "A lot of US firms think that Europe is over the top when it comes to data protection, but they like the approach that Ireland takes and this is why many choose to be regulated here," said John Whelan, head of the A&L Goodbody's Silicon Valley office.
"The amicable resolution approach that the Irish data protection office has is very attractive to US companies. The Irish office has huge regard within Silicon Valley. It's one of the reasons that companies are choosing to be regulated here."
The flipside is scepticism and cynicism from other commentators. "Of course Facebook would go to a country with the lowest levels of data protection," sneered former German federal data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar recently. "It's natural they would choose Ireland."
Critics say the Irish office has been underfunded, a charge that Helen Dixon partially acknowledges. She says, however, that the office's funding is increasing almost two-fold this year.
Dixon also says that some of the criticism stems from a difference in opinion over styles of enforcement.
"There are those that disagree with [our 'engagement'] approach, and there are discussions afoot about the underlying framework of data protection in Europe," she said. "But with the framework and the facts as they are, I am confident that the engaged approach used by my 0ffice is the right one, and that our expanded resources and geographic proximity to decision-makers in leading technology companies make us well-placed to regulate with the full efficacy that our stakeholders deserve."