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Billy Hawkes, the Irishman in charge of the privacy of 1 billion Internet users around the world. Photo by: Photocall Ireland

Privacy of 1bn people on the Internet is controlled by one Irishman

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Billy Hawkes, the Irishman in charge of the privacy of 1 billion Internet users around the world. Photo by: Photocall Ireland

He told Quartz, “When I started off in this job, the focus would primarily have been domestic. You wouldn’t be talking to me if I was only concerned with schools and supermarkets. It’s become a far more complex job. I used to have a quiet life [but] that is no longer the case."

"This idea that we’re a light-touch regulator is based on a misunderstanding of how we do things. I would absolutely reject that,” he said Hawkes, who has served 43 years in civil service.

“Our approach is to talk to companies, explain exactly what we expect of them [and] expect they will follow that. But if they don’t, we have some of the strongest enforcement powers of any European data protection authority.”

Hawkes says gentle pressure and the threat of enforcement is a greater incentive for compliance than punitive fines that huge companies can easily afford.

Regarding the Schrems case, he said, “A company like Facebook is always going to be controversial. Irrespective of what we do there was always going to be criticism of what we did.”

He adds that it is in the companies' best interests to comply with the DPC. “Companies recognize that challenging the data protection authority is not a good idea. It’s terrible PR.”

According to Quartz, Ireland is more relaxed about data protection than continental Europe but "closer to the European model, which sees data privacy as a fundamental right than to the American approach, which sees privacy as a consumer right to be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, not mandated by Congress. Hawkes must somehow find common ground between these two extremes."

The debate about the Irish Data Protection Commission is set to become more heated with the EU close to passing new data-protection regulation. One result of the law will be that companies will have to answer only to the the data protection authority of the country in which they are based. The regulation could become law before European Parliament elections this May, after which member states will have until 2016 to bring national legislation in line with the regulation.

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