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Greens barking up the wrong tree — Privacy Commissioner

Our new watchdog likes to share.

Wed, 27 Aug 2014

I'm loving our new Privacy Commissioner's habit of thinking out loud.

John Edwards' predecessor achieved a lot. But when it came to questions on policy in development, or complaints on her desk, she tended to be a consummate bureaucrat, avoiding specific answers (quite in keeping with most government agency heads.

The new Commissioner, by contrast, is an an open book.

This includes the #dirtypolitics controversy, where attention has centred in part on Justice Minister Judith Collins supplying the name of Internal Affairs staffer and alleged whistleblower Simon Pleasants to Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater.

Mr Edwards says he will not to open an inquiry without the support of Mr Pleasants, and that the complaint came from the Greens rather than the civil servant himself (Mr Pleasants who denies Whale Oil's whistleblowing allegation, says he will not seek an investigation).

The Commissioner explains his reasoning in his latest post:

Barking up the wrong tree

Since the publication of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, I’ve received a number of complaints and enquiries from people concerned about the book’s content. Each of those matters will receive the due consideration afforded to each of the 800 plus complaints and 9000 enquiries dealt with by this Office each year.

One of the complaints to my office was from the Green Party. It suggested that I should be investigating the reported disclosure by the Minister of Justice, of the contact details and job title of a public servant, to the blogger Cameron Slater.

The request for the investigation did not come from the public servant who was the subject of the disclosure. I advised the Greens that the Privacy Act gives me the discretion to refuse to investigate a matter where the complainant (in this case, the Green Party) does not have a sufficient personal interest in the subject matter of the complaint.

One commentator said last week that there was no point in having watchdogs that won’t bark.

The Privacy Act is fundamentally concerned with the preservation and promotion of individual autonomy. It protects the right of an individual to determine, or at least influence, the extent to which their personal information is placed into the public domain and becomes the subject of public discussion.

That purpose would not be served if we were to investigate a complaint in a highly politicised and publicised environment that is neither on behalf of, nor supported by, the affected individual.

As for the other complaints I have received, if we find barking is warranted, then the public can be assured we will bark. What we won’t do is howl at the moon.

It's great to see this level of transparency about Mr Edwards' thinking, and the attendant explanation about the role of his office.

When he was first named Privacy Commissioner, I was worried the Wellington lawyer would lose the front-foot approach that's seen him take jabs at everything from torture in Fiji to NBR's paywall. Not so. Good stuff.

His post on whether the EU's 'Right to be Forgotten" Google ruling could apply to NZ is also recommended reading.

Check out his blog (with staff also chipping in) here

Social media and blogging are often seen as trite and superficial, but the Privacy Commissioner shows they can be used for intelligent engagement. I hope other Crown agency heads are taking a look.

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Greens barking up the wrong tree — Privacy Commissioner