Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Next Anglo-Scale Crisis Will be in Data Protection

Billy Hawkes has his work cut out for him
I've argued for some time that the problem in Ireland is not one of light-touch regulation, but of culture. The failure that led to such catastrophic circumstances was not down to Lehman Brothers, or the Global Meltdown, or Anglo, or the Financial Regulator, but culture. A culture that said 'go on sure you'll be grand,' a culture that basically said take what you can get away with, so long as you don't get caught, a culture that told politicians - jovially - that the only thing, the *only* thing they had to protect was their seat.  That caused an abdication of leadership and responsibility, an absence of ownership, and a complete abandonment of the principles of the nation. So we are - as they in Leinster House so wearily put it - where we are. The implication of that phrase, of course, is that we do not learn from our mistakes, we forget about the past, and we fix the problem we are faced with rather than contemplating the uncontemplable - that we are fundamentally wrong about all sorts of important stuff that's really hard to fix.

The Anglo trial judge blamed the Regulator - who wasn't on trial - and David Drumm - who wasn't there. The middle class SUV drivers, just like his neighbours and chums at the golf course, were really functionaries, victims. They broke the law - but hey, who wouldn't!? The lawyers told them it was OK, the State - through the regulator - told them it was OK. What were they to do? Standards, and classes, 'go on sure you'll be grand.'  It could have been any of us.

So we move on.  We borrow enormous amounts of money to plaster over the cracks of the last core meltdown, but we don't consider another fuel.  We re-establish the basis for property price growth without thinking whether our housing policies are right, whether banking, legal and planning rules are not at least in part to blame for what went wrong before. We proudly proclaim that what had happened before is highly unlikely to happen again, now that we have new rules.  But it is not clear whether this pronouncement refers merely to the narrow circumstances of the Anglo / ILP debacle.  It can hardly be much broader, as there have been few changes in housing policy.  The very structure of NAMA prevents change, and encourages the formation of a new bubble; its objective is to maximise the return for the state, which in turn means that it needs property prices to soar.  Any legislation or attempts to cool the housing market, to limit speculation, are inherently anti-NAMA. So we won't try that. We hope things won't go bad, and - if they do - we will claim that we couldn't have predicted that, when in fact we can, because it's nothing to do with circumstance, but with culture.

We are currently seeing something like the seeds of a new crisis unfolding in data protection.  Billy Hawkes and the Data Protection Commission are responsible for administering data protection rules for dozens of large Internet companies that employ thousands of Irish people (and foreigners in Ireland), across the EU and, in effect, for the whole world outside America.  Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the rest heavily depend on the protection of law for their business, which is entirely predicated on data monetization.  Data is their currency.  If their data - our data - is compromised, or if the integrity of their business is in some way undermined by the legal infrastructure that the DPC operates, then the presence of Internet businesses in Ireland will be immediately under threat.

We remain under-invested in data protection.  There are thirty (30) officers, when there should be closer to 1,000.  Billy Hawkes' crack team - no sarcasm intended, I'm sure they are all really good, all thirty of them - was responsible for assessing whether there were data protection breaches when the Garda whistle-blowers shared data with Clare Daly, and for getting the employment crowd to stop sending me (!) unsolicited emails to come to their seminars.  On top of that, they have to deal with regulating data protection on the Internet. The freakin' internet.

We don't have any specialisations in the area, and we are learning on the hoof.  In the same way as the Financial Services Regulator had few genuine economists or bankers who could really understand the structure of the Irish banking system before the crisis, we do not have Internet specialists, lawyers who understand why data protection is important, the implications of net neutrality, or internet strategy.  In that circumstance, the lawyers from Google and Facebook will run rings around them, design their own agenda, and we'll say 'go on sure, you'll be grand.' If we think that they know more than we do - and they are Americans who are investing in Ireland, after all - then we'll let them lead. You tell us what you need so that you can vote for Ireland as the best small country in the world to do business, and we'll do it for you.

Thanks a million lads, you're great.  

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