John Edwards has officially begun his five-year term as information commissioner, a role that will see him take charge of the UK’s data regulator during a critical point for the country’s data protection regime.
Edwards, who previously spent eight years as New Zealand privacy commissioner, said that “privacy is a right not a privilege” and that he will work with organisations to ensure they respect data privacy while “still reaping the benefits of data-driven innovation”.
His appointment comes ahead of a crucial year for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), with the government signalling that the UK will begin a post-Brexit divergence from the European Union’s data protection regime, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The GDPR was brought into UK law following the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. However, former digital minister Oliver Dowden has previously suggested the UK will break away from the GDPR, framed by the government as using “the power of data to drive growth and create jobs” and cutting red tape.
Edwards will work with the government on these proposed reforms to the UK’s Data Protection Act. He will have to balance any divergence from GDPR with ensuring the UK’s data laws are robust enough for other nations to entrust the free flow of data across international borders.
Part of this will see the new ICO chief tasked with “strengthening links” with data regulators in other countries, as well as working with industry stakeholders.
Also high on the privacy tsar’s agenda is overseeing the introduction of the controversial Online Safety Bill, along with the Age Appropriate Design Code aimed at making the online world safer for children.
“In a world where our personal data can drive everything from the healthcare we receive to the job opportunities we see, we all deserve to have our data treated with respect,” Edwards said in a statement.
“My role is to work with those to whom we entrust our data so they are able to respect our privacy with ease whilst still reaping the benefits of data-driven innovation. I also want to empower people to understand and influence how they want their data to be used, and to make it easy for people to access remedies if things go wrong.”
Edwards comes from a legal background, having spent more than 14 years as a solicitor and barrister. He has been an outspoken critic of social media giant Facebook, deleting his account in the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal and describing the company as “morally bankrupt pathological liars”.
Edwards was put forward for the role in August 2021 and confirmed as information commissioner in December. He replaces outgoing ICO chief Elizabeth Denham, who was appointed to the role in 2016.