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Data watchdog needs two more commissioners, says rightsgroup ICCL


Criticism: Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon declined to attend EU committee. Photo: Adrian Weckler

Criticism: Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon declined to attend EU committee. Photo: Adrian Weckler

Criticism: Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon declined to attend EU committee. Photo: Adrian Weckler

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has asked the Minister for Justice to appoint two additional Data Protection Commissioners (DPC) and says an independent review of the commission’s operations is needed to strengthen the embattled regulatory authority.

The ICCL said its call follows sustained criticism of DPC Helen Dixon in Europe, including a high-profile and highly critical intervention from her German opposite number this week.

In his letter to Justice Minister Helen McEntee, ICCL executive director Liam Herrick cited significant conflict between the Irish DPC and the European Parliament as a reason for seeking action from the minister. 

A spokesperson for the minister said the Data Protection Commission is “completely independent in the performance of its tasks and the exercise of its powers", but added that since 2015 the authority had seen a five-fold increase in budget allocation to tackle a growing workload. 

On Thursday, the European Parliament will vote on resolution proposed by the Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, known as the LIBE Committee, that is expected to call for the EU Commission to take infringement procedures against Ireland over alleged failures to enforce the general data protection regulations (GDPR). It’s thought to also include criticism of how the Irish authority has dealt with privacy activist Max Schrems’ actions against Facebook.

In an unusually forthright exchange this week, letters from Ms Dixon revealed that she refused to attend a LIBE sub-committee meeting if it meant answering questions alongside Mr Schrems.

Such a session would be “wholly inappropriate” pending the outcome of a legal action involving both the DPC and Max Schrems, Ms Dixon said.

However, LIBE chair Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar said the proposed meeting would not to involve a direct exchange between the speakers, and Mr Schrems said he did not believe there was a legal reason the two could not attend a single session. 

In her blistering letter sent on March 16, the head of Ireland’s privacy watchdog also accused members of the committee of making up their minds against her agency in advance a scheduled meeting.

The letter has been published on the DPC website alongside other correspondence. Ms Dixon, citing media reports, said the LIBE committee’s so-called ‘Shadow Rapporteurs’ – members drawn from the main political groupings who tend to do the heavy lifting on such committees – had already drafted a criticism of her agency before hearing from her.

The Irish data chief had asked for a chance to speak to the LIBE Committee, to respond to criticism.

But she declined when the committee proposed the Thursday, March 18 session, which included Andrea Jelinek, chair of the European Data Protection Board, alongside Mr Schrems.

Max Schrems is an Austrian data privacy campaigner whose long-running complaints in relation to Facebook have forced wide-ranging changes to the EU’s data-protection regime. He is also an outspoken critic of Ireland’s data protection enforcement and is involved in a legal action with the DPC, which Ms Dixon said means she should not enter what was likely to be a debate.

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