Friday 26 December 2014

We're sending out the wrong signals in bid to lure the big data bucks

Simon McGarr

Published 06/12/2013 | 02:30

Billy Hawkes, data protection commissioner, at his offices in Portarlington, Co. Laois. Picture: James Flynn/APX
Billy Hawkes, data protection commissioner, at his offices above a Centra shop in Portarlington, Co. Laois. Photo: James Flynn/APX
The office in Portarlington

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner regulates the combined personal data of billions of users of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Apple and Twitter by virtue of their investments here. But, unlike all these giants of technology, the Commissioner's office isn't based around the emerging tech hub of Grand Canal Docks. In fact, it isn't even in Dublin.

The Fianna Fail decentralisation programme sent the Commissioner to live above a Centra shop in Portarlington, Co Laois, a colourful fact the German newspaper 'Bild' was not slow to point out to its readers when it covered Ireland's claim to be fit to manage Germany's data – complete with full colour photo of the Centra.

To take on this giant task of protecting the data rights of everyone in Ireland, as well as those of millions of other users from around the world, the Government has given the Data Protection Commissioner a Lilliputian budget of €2.2m.

We need to look to history to understand how one country can capture the lion's share of a global business and then hold its place at the centre of that industry for centuries. Let's look to London, the home of the global insurance and reinsurance business.

The reason that London continues to hold such sway has nothing to do with the echoes of empire. The UK has worked hard, and spent freely, to ensure they have a world-class regulatory system.

When the previous regulatory institutions lost the confidence of the market, the government scrapped them and started again. The cost of the combined regulatory system for the insurance industry in the UK is estimated to be £645m this year.

This is nothing like 'light-touch' regulation. This is the real thing. And it provides the global insurance industry with the certainty all behemoths of finance crave. Oh, and the UK's reward for this investment? The insurance industry makes up 2.5pc of the entire county's GDP – worth £32.4bn in 2010.

Unfortunately, the signals that Ireland isn't serious about the data industry and doesn't understand what is really needed to attract long-term investment don't stop at the Commissioner's physical address.

After the Snowden leak sent shockwaves around the world at the reach and scale of spying on citizens' digital life, the Commissioner blandly went on the radio and assured the nation (and all the other nations whose citizens were affected) that there was 'nothing new' in what we'd heard.

When Austrian campaign group Facebook v Europe tried to complain about EU data being passed to the NSA, he cited the Safe Harbour treaty as grounds for a refusal to investigate.

Meanwhile, our public representatives are still comfortable saying they don't understand technical issues. Last week, during the debate of his proposals to increase fees for making a Freedom of Information request, Brendan Howlin was asked how one of his amendments would affect citizens looking for data from the State's electronic databases. His reply was to cheerfully admit he didn't even understand the question. "I have no idea what an SQL code is. Does anyone know what an SQL code is?"

Unlike the minister, it probably isn't your job to know that SQL is the computer language that underpins the data industry. The amendment he had originally proposed would have effectively allowed civil servants to pretend that their computer files were made of paper when deciding whether a request was reasonable. His answer showed how the Government could have proposed such an absurd idea in the first place.

Like it or not – fair or not – these are not the signals a country that wanted to build a long-term data industry would choose to send out. They are the sort of signals that Ireland used to send out about Financial Regulation. I think it's agreed, that approach didn't work out so well.

This time, we need to attract the big bucks, not just the fast bucks. Technological revolutions happen once in a generation. We won't get another chance to get this right.

Simon McGarr is a solicitor with McGarr Solicitors. He has represented Digital Rights Ireland in the Irish and European courts

Irish Independent

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