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French minister casts doubts on Irish data role over handling of Facebook breach


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France’s technology minister has strongly hinted that his country could look to rewrite EU rules that make Ireland the primary regulator of Facebook and other digital giants.

The comments about Ireland’s willingness to tackle data breaches came as the US mulls stricter privacy laws.

Cédric O, France’s secretary of state for digital transition, took to Twitter on Thursday to mark the fact that Ireland had “finally” launched an inquiry into the leak of half a billion Facebook users’ data earlier this month.

He hinted the inquiry was long overdue and could lead to EU legislative changes if it doesn’t have teeth.

“Inquiry finally launched by the Irish DPC on the Facebook data leak. Let’s hope they respond to the unacceptable situation, which has affected millions of French citizens. If not, we will have to draw some conclusions about the European data protection framework.”

Under EU rules, most tech giants are regulated in Ireland or Luxembourg, where they have their European headquarters.

Last month MEPs expressed “great concern” about the role of the Irish Data Protection Commission, saying that it “generally closes most cases with a settlement instead of a sanction”.

They urged the Commission, headed by Helen Dixon, to “speed up” ongoing investigations into major cases “to show EU citizens that data protection is an enforceable right in the EU”.

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Germany’s data protection chief Ulrich Kelber has also hit out at Ireland’s approach to regulating firms such as Facebook, saying it is too slow to see cases through.

Last December Ireland fined Twitter €450,000 euros for mistakenly making some private tweets public, the first sanction against a major US tech company.

On Wednesday the Data Protection Commission (DPC) launched an inquiry into Facebook’s compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) following media reports of the data leak.

The DPC said it was “of the opinion that one or more provisions” of the GDPR and/or the Irish data protection act had been infringed.

Meanwhile, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said that a new US law could stop tech giants in Ireland from processing data on US customers.

A draft bill introduced on Thursday, titled “Protecting Americans’ Data From Foreign Surveillance”, restricts the export of US personal data to counties with “inadequate” data protection.

The ICCL urged the government to appoint two extra data commissioners and launch an independent review into reforming the DPC.

“Action is urgently required to establish confidence for people across Europe that their data is being treated safely and legally, and to restore Ireland’s reputation as a regulatory leader,” said Johnny Ryan, a Senior Fellow at the ICCL.

EU digital and competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager told the Irish Independent in an interview last month that the government here had “a bigger task” than most EU states when it comes to data protection.

While she wouldn’t be drawn on criticism of the DPC, she said draft EU rules known as the digital services act would allow the bloc to “step in, as backstop, and take over the specific enforcement in certain cases”.

“That is exactly [so as] not to end in a situation where, hypothetically, non-enforcement priorities sort of make it difficult for the Digital Services Act to take full effect.”

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