Business Technology

Sunday 22 September 2019

Tech giants face fines and other 'measures' - data commissioner

Data Commissioner Helen Dixon at the Secure Computing Forum 2019. Photo: Mark Condren
Data Commissioner Helen Dixon at the Secure Computing Forum 2019. Photo: Mark Condren

Shawn Pogatchnik

Facebook and other big tech companies in Ireland could face a series of fines and "corrective measures" if found negligent in their handling of customers' personal data, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has warned.

Helen Dixon's office is currently pursuing 21 investigations against Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other tech companies accused of misusing users' personal data.

She was speaking at the Secure Computing Forum, sponsored by Independent News & Media, at the RDS in Dublin yesterday.

Ms Dixon laughed when the moderator, Irish Independent Technology Editor Adrian Weckler, asked her if Facebook - the target, along with its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram, in 11 of the probes - was "in big trouble".

"When you ask are they in trouble, they are under scrutiny. They are subject to statutory investigation for which, as you said, there can be significant sanctions in the form of administrative fines," she said. "But I think even more impactful are going to be the corrective measures that we can apply where we find there are infringements."

Noting authorities in Germany and the US were exploring anti-trust and other legal action against social media companies, Ms Dixon said: "There's a lot of regulators... circling now around the practices of big tech. There will be outcomes and consequences."

Ms Dixon noted that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in July imposed a record $5bn fine on Facebook for breaching users' right to data privacy, while her office could impose fines of up to 4pc of a company's annual turnover.

Facebook's global sales rose 37pc last year to $55.8bn; 4pc of that is $2.23bn (€2bn).

But Ms Dixon questioned whether financial penalties alone, even huge ones, would change corporate behaviour.

She noted that Democratic Party members of the FTC had argued that financial punishment "does nothing to change the business model. It's going to be absorbed as a cost of doing business. And as we sit here today, has it changed anything in terms of how the revenue is derived and how privacy is or isn't protected?"

Ms Dixon suggested that given the US sanction and the statutory requirements of her own office, Irish fines were likely. "We're obliged to implement the fines... if we find infringement. So it will happen," she said.

While the FTC had imposed "a once-off, large-scale settlement", she said her own office would apply fines "in every distinct case of infringement. The fines will accumulate for certain companies if they don't apply any remedial actions".

Irish Independent

Also in Business