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One EU data protection authority to rule them all, under new proposal

Jennifer Baker | May 28, 2014
A proposal for a unified approach to policing European Union data was released Tuesday, but member states are likely to bicker over it.

The proposal seems that it would have the most impact in Ireland where many U.S. technology companies, including Facebook, Google and Amazon, have European headquarters because of low tax rates.

However, there are worries that the relatively small EU country would not be able to handle a surge in complaints.

"Currently, it's probably operating at the edge of its capacity," said Simon McGarr, lead solicitor at McGarr Solicitors in Ireland. "Although there have been promises from the Irish justice minister that he would increase resources in order to meet any additional needs."

According to Irish Data Protection Authority (DPA) figures, during 2012 the office opened 1,349 complaints for investigation, with just under a third related to individuals having difficulty gaining access to their personal data held by organizations. In 2012 the DPA's running costs were just over €1.5 million (US$2 million), of which 85 percent were staff costs.

But Irish Data Commissioner Billy Hawkes is bullish about his office's ability to cope. "I noted that pressure was likely to increase under the one-stop-shop arrangement, but we are well-placed to discharge the additional responsibilities that arise from the increasing number of information-rich multinational companies that are choosing Ireland as a base," he said in his annual statement.

"It's still too early to tell if there really will be a massive influx of cases to Ireland," McGarr said. "After the recent European Court of Justice ruling on the right to be forgotten, Google was alarmed at the number of requests it received to delete links -- something in the region of 15,000 complaints for the entire EU. That would have a very large impact, but it's still not clear that Ireland would be the lead authority in such a case."

Despite some concerns, McGarr said that he doesn't think jurisdiction shopping, where companies relocate to the country with the most favorable interpretation of the legislation, would prove to be a problem for Ireland.

"Short-term data regulations might become one of those commercial differentiators. But long term, as we found in Ireland, stability of the location and consistent legislation is more important," he said.

Although the new law would have to be written verbatim into national laws, there will still be room for national rules, for example in journalism and freedom of expression, explained one regulator, adding, "However, forum shopping can be avoided if several conditions are met, for example, powers and duties of data protection authorities are harmonized to a greater extent and are given sufficient resources."

The proposed law has been discussed since 2012 and was approved by the European Parliament in March. However, a new Parliament has since been elected and will have to negotiate with the member states to come to an agreement on the law.


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