Apple CEO's plan to appear at privacy conference shows growing impact of data protection regulation

10 October 2018 2:30pm

3 October 2018. By Mike Swift.

Apple CEO Tim Cook will be the keynote speaker at this month’s International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels, making him the first Silicon Valley tech chief to address the annual global meeting of the world’s privacy regulators.

Cook, who is certain to re-affirm Apple’s stance that privacy is a fundamental human right, won’t be alone in representing Big Tech in Brussels. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will beam his video comments to the ICDPPC, as will Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

While Cook will no doubt sharply differentiate Apple’s business model from those of other companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that rely on monetizing personal data, the appearance at the conference by the trinity of tech titans shows that privacy regulation has become a critical concern to Silicon Valley and the rest of the global tech industry.

Just a year ago, before Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation took effect, and before Brazil, India and the state of California passed or proposed comprehensive data protection laws with significant financial penalties, there was no such presence of Big Tech at the 2017 ICDPPC in Hong Kong. Last year’s event was also before the Cambridge Analytica privacy breach gave political momentum to those new laws, and forced Zuckerberg to testify before the US Congress and the European Parliament.

Last year, Apple sent its chief privacy officer. This year, a company that generally shuns tech gatherings is sending the CEO. That milestone change is one measure of how far data protection regulation has come in the past 12 months.

With Facebook facing a potential penalty of $1.6 billion as its “View As” data breach is investigated by a growing list of EU regulators as a potential violation of the GDPR, data protection has joined antitrust as a central regulatory risk for a growing list of companies.

The risk is not limited to tech companies. The recent data breach of British Airways is also under investigation and could theoretically trigger a penalty of 500 million UK pounds (about US $649 million) under GDPR.

Other prominent speakers at this year’s ICDPPC include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; philosopher Anita Allen; Felipe VI, the King of Spain; and the former chief justice of India, Jagdish Singh. But Cook’s address, announced Tuesday, will likely produce the most media attention.

The central theme of this year’s ICDPPC, hosted by European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli and Ventislav Karadjov, chairman of the Bulgarian Data Protection Commission, is the ethics of the use of personal data. That is a theme that no doubt resonated with Cook, who said in a television interview broadcast by Vice Media Tuesday evening, “I see privacy as one of the most important issues of the 21st Century.”

While Cook said he is “not a pro-regulation kind of person” on privacy, he said when that when the free market produces an undesirable result for society, “I think some level of government regulation is important to come out of that.”

Later, the Apple CEO, without uttering the words “Google,” “Amazon” or “Facebook,” was more blunt about the data collection practices of other tech companies.  “The narrative that some companies will try to get you to believe is: 'I’ve got to take all of your data to make my service better.' Well, don’t believe them. Whoever’s telling you that, it’s a bunch of bunk.”

Facebook Vice President Erin Egan and Google Senior Vice President Kent Walker will no doubt work to push back on that premise when they speak at the Brussels conference following the video comments of their CEOs. Google and Facebook did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, while Apple declined to comment.

And while the conference will include speakers from the US Federal Trade Commission and a number of European regulators such as Helen Dixon, the data protection commissioner of Ireland, it will also feature many speakers and attendees from South America and Asia, such as Raymund Liboro, chairman of the Philippines National Privacy Commission, and Masao Horibe, chair of the Personal Information Protection Commission of Japan.

It is therefore an opportunity for leaders such as Cook to address a world audience on privacy. And that is a chance, amid a wave of new privacy regulations around the world, that Silicon Valley can no longer ignore.

Global Privacy in 2018