Outgoing Information Commissioner reflects on ‘big beast of a job’

Elizabeth Denham departs the role regulating data and privacy in the UK this week, with New Zealander John Edwards taking over.

Elizabeth Denham
Elizabeth Denham

Outgoing Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said she is proud her leadership forced tech giants to take children’s data more seriously on a global scale.

The Canadian leaves the “big beast of a job” in the UK this week after more than five years, handing the reins over to New Zealander John Edwards.

Banning of location tracking and profiling of children are among 15 standards that came into force in September, which led to the likes of YouTube, TikTok and Instagram making sweeping changes not only for users in the UK but across the world.

Tech firms that fail to follow the Age Appropriate Design Code face large fines.

Reflecting on her time as Information Commissioner, Ms Denham told the PA news agency: “I think it’s the work that I’m most proud of because we can already see that the kids’ code, with its base level of protection by default, we can already see that’s making a change.

“I’m pleased to see the response but we’re now doing a sweep of the top 50 service providers for kids to see how they are complying with the code, so we’ve rolled up our sleeves and we’re doing that sweep right now.”

Since joining, Ms Denham has seen staff numbers at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) increase from around 400 in 2016 to more than 800.

As the public become more conscious of their personal data and how it is used, the departing privacy tsar expects more change on the horizon.

“We’ve brought in more expertise, economists, AI specialists, technical staff, so I think that’s positive,” she told PA.

“Given the role that data plays in our society I think we’re only going need to continue to grow in at least our capacity to address these issues.”

John Edwards
John Edwards is the UK’s new Information Commissioner (PA)

Ms Denham said she has known Mr Edwards for more than a decade and described him as an “international leader”.

“I’m absolutely delighted that he has been the successful candidate for Information Commissioner because I think he brings pragmatism, and deep content experience, I know he’s respected around the world,” she said.

“Although he’s coming from another country, just as I did from Canada, it’s a Commonwealth country with similar legal framework and parliamentary framework, so I think that’s really helpful.”

When he was grilled by MPs in September, Mr Edwards defended Ms Denham’s decision to raid two homes in relation to leaked CCTV footage that led to Matt Hancock quitting as health secretary.

He was also asked about his thoughts on Facebook, after calling the tech giant “morally bankrupt, pathological liars” in the wake of the Christchurch attacks in 2019.

“That tweet came from a very profound context of national shock and grief at a very egregious terrorist act that was facilitated, amplified and propagated through that particular platform,” he said.

“Facebook and every other organisation which is subject to the ICO’s jurisdiction can expect a fair and impartial inquiry when I occupy that role, without predetermination.”

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