Ireland’s tech troubles a bigger problem in Europe than Washington

US senators more interested in quizzing Helen Dixon on GDPR than regulatory standards

Helen Dixon: the Irish Data Protection Commissioner was given something of an easy time from senators. Photograph: Eric Luke

Helen Dixon: the Irish Data Protection Commissioner was given something of an easy time from senators. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It was a busy day in the US Senate on Wednesday. By 9am a steady stream of officials and journalists queued outside the senate complex. The star attraction, however, was not Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon but attorney general William Barr, who was before the Senate Judiciary Committee in his first appearance since the controversial Mueller report was published.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of interest in the committee room where Dixon, and three other data privacy experts, were questioned by senators.

Data privacy is a hot topic in the US now.

While the United States was traditionally behind the European Union when it came to tech regulation, the introduction of a new Californian law that gives consumer protections to users has radically changed the conversation around data privacy in the US.

Modelled in part in the EU’s landmark GDPR law, the California Consumer Privacy Act is due to come into effect early next year. Its arrival has prompted a scramble in Congress to come up with a federal version.

US tech companies have – suspiciously – embraced the move for a federal regulatory system. The reason? Many suspect they are pushing for a national law that would be less stringent than the Californian version. Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal echoed the views of many yesterday when he warned Congress not to water down the Californian law. “Federal rules simply cannot be an opportunity to weaken a strong framework that industry opposes ... We have to provide at least the same standards … In fact, I believe they ought to be even more rigorous.”

As for Dixon, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner was given something of an easy time from senators, who were more interested in questioning her about the workings of GDPR rather than posing any probing questions about Ireland’s regulatory standards. It helped that many of the senators were Republicans who are not exactly pro-regulation when it comes to big business. Following a highly negative Politico article last week alleging that Government officials lobbied for tech business in Brussels, it seems that Ireland’s tech troubles are more a problem in Europe than Washington.

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