IN DEPTH: Protecting Our Private Data
This past year, data protection issues have been high on the agenda and I have been a leader in this debate at Irish and European level. I have made important links with other national and international parliamentarians in a bid to implement strong and appropriate data privacy regulations that empower citizens rather than allow them to be treated as targets or products.
In November 2017, I was invited to address the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, along with other international data experts. I spoke about the importance of regulations to protect the privacy of individuals and the integrity of electoral processes. This July I have been asked to address a conference of US State Attornies General on how they can strengthen data protection.
As the Data Protection Bill passed through the Oireachtas, I pinpointed a number of loopholes, which fell short of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards. In March, I submitted over 30 amendments at committee and report stage and succeeded in winning important changes.
These included vital improvements around ‘the right to be forgotten’ and child protection, including a ban on profiling children for advertising purposes. I also strengthened Ministerial accountability and persuaded the Government to reverse their plan to exempt public bodies from fines. Public bodies who break the rules will now face fines of up to €1 million. However, concerns remain around exemptions for political parties and candidates, which I fear might be exploited by third parties or dubious political consultancies.
Since the Cambridge Analytica exposé, there has been increasing international concern around data-harvesting, micro-targeting and the unregulated and often unaccountable sphere of online political advertising. I have consistently called for the introduction of legislation to regulate such advertising in Ireland, as is already the case for print and broadcast media.
I also pressed for more immediate action in advance of the recent referendum, initiating a cross-party open letter calling on Facebook to accelerate the roll-out of new online transparency features for political advertising in Ireland and linking with US legislators to increase pressure on the other side of the Atlantic. The Transparent Referendum Initiative was invaluable in tracking the scale of such advertising.
In the absence of proper accountability, I called on all social media platforms to stop selling unregulated online political ads, stating: “Facebook acknowledges there is a problem… the least they can do is stop digging… while they get their house in order.”
Shortly afterwards, Facebook banned all overseas referendum ads on its platform and a few days later Google paused referendum advertising across all their platforms, including YouTube.
However, self-regulation is not enough and I will continue to work with others in the Oireachtas on legislation to regulate online political advertising in future elections and referendums and the introduction of a long-overdue Electoral Commission.