Tuesday 17 September 2019

Profile: Helen Dixon - Europe’s most powerful regulator has her toughest job yet

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

When the European Court Of Justice talks about someone "suspending" Facebook's data traffic from the EU to the US, they mean the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

If Helen Dixon was Europe's most powerful privacy regulator before yesterday, she may soon have new global attention. The decision her office may soon have to make could knock billions off Facebook's value and change the daily communication habits of almost a fifth of the world's citizens.

And at least some of that work will still take place above a Centra in Portarlington.

Ms Dixon is not yet a year into her role after jobs in the Companies Registration Office, Department of Enterprise and multinational technology firm Citrix.

But there is no question about her global authority. When her office issues notices about some of the companies regulated here, it flashes across media organisations such as Bloomberg and 'The New York Times' within minutes.

The reason is simple. Positions that her office takes have far-reaching implications for some of the world's biggest firms, such as Apple, Google and Facebook.

This 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 such as Facebook or Apple can't release it.

Facebook recently launched new global privacy features after Ms Dixon's office told them they were needed. Similarly, Apple "proactively" consulted the Irish office before launching map-enhancing photo-vehicles around the streets of Ireland and the UK earlier this year.

Ms Dixon's approach to her role is seen in the industry as a mixture of co-operation and firm guidance.

"They provide advice and guidance and that means that we fix things so that they don't have to bring out the big stick," said Facebook's director of public policy, Richard Allan of the Irish office.

But Ms Dixon's office still has less than 50 staff. This is considered a little skimpy to cover all of the things expected of it, especially now that Ms Dixon (pictured right) has just been tasked with her office's toughest job yet. She is being asked by the European Court Of Justice to "decide whether transfer of the data of Facebook's European subscribers to the United States should be suspended on the ground that that country does not afford an adequate level of protection of personal data".

It asks this of her right after giving its own view that Americans don't pay due regard for protection of personal data.

So it appears that Ms Dixon is being tasked with the responsibility of pulling the kind of trigger that no-one in the European Commission has the guts to do. Her past form indicates she has the guts to make decisions. But this is a new level.

Irish Independent

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