Ireland ‘cannot shirk’ role in safeguarding fundamental privacy rights
Law professor Donncha O'Connell listens intently at Dave Ellis memorial lecture Pic: David Speirs

08 Jan 2019 / data law Print

Ireland can't shirk role in fundamental privacy rights

US attorney Marc Rotenberg has said at that Ireland has a “critical role” in the regulation of the internet giants.

Delivering the annual FLAC Dave Ellis memorial lecture, Rotenberg said that Ireland’s role as a regulator of the social media platforms based here is being watched closely worldwide.

Rotenberg is President of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) a Washington NGO focused on data protection and privacy issues. He delivered his talk on internet privacy issues.

Legal authority

Rotenberg told the audience at the Pillar Room in Dublin’s Rotunda on 13 December that EPIC routinely participates in significant privacy cases in the US, but lacked both the ability and the legal authority to participate in cases before European courts. 

Consequently, it reached out to FLAC to provide expert advice in the Schrems case– the legal advice organisation was warmly thanked for its input by Rotenberg in his speech.

EPIC was launched 25 years ago on foot of a plan from the US National Security Agency to gain access to private communications.

“We wrote to the [US] President and explained that the plan would put at risk the privacy and security of lawful conduct, and we warned that weakened encryption would create vulnerabilities that criminal hackers would exploit,” Rotenberg recalled.

Privacy

That plan was suspended, but EPIC continued to focus on privacy and human rights, defending the privacy of consumers, citizens and internet users as an independent voice in Washington, DC.

“The US election in 2016 raised a new concern for us,” Rotenberg explained.

“Substantial questions were raised about foreign interference in the election, the manipulation of social media, and financial relations between US political candidates and foreign governments." 

In 2017, EPIC launched a new project to determine the extent of Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election, and to prevent future attacks on democratic institutions.  

“The US open government law – the Freedom of Information Act– is critical to our work to hold government accountable,” Rotenberg explained.

EPIC is currently pursuing several Freedom of Information Actlawsuits.

In EPIC v ODNI, it sought the public release of the report of the intelligence community on Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Use of bots

Rotenberg said the Director of National Intelligence had determined that the Russians had launched a multi-pronged attack on the election, including the use of automated internet accounts – bots – to provoke political divisions within the US. 

Through EPIC’s Freedom of Information Act litigation, it was able to confirm that the classified report contained identical findings to those that appeared in media reports.

“The problem was real and widely known across the federal government

EPIC v FBI, we sought records concerning the FBI’s response to an attack by a foreign government on the political institutions of the United States.

“As the lead agency responsible for the protection of US organisations from cyberattack, we believed that the public had the right to know whether the FBI had fulfilled its responsibility to safeguard the American public,” he said.

Optical scanning

Rotenberg added that many computer scientists believe that online elections were inherently insecure and urged a requirement for paper ballots, with the possibility of optical scanning.

He concluded that all of these cases sought to promote government accountability, to safeguard democratic institutions, and to ensure that the public was able to understand and assess threats to the election system.

On artificial intelligence (AI), Rotenberg commented that EPIC was not against automated decision-making, but believed it was absolutely critical that such decisions were fair, transparent, and accountable. EPIC has campaigned in support of algorithmic transparency.

“Our point was simple: we did not want to live in a black-box society in which decisions about us are based on factors we do not see and cannot control,” he said.

Universal guidelines

EPIC has called for the establishment of universal guidelines for AI, with the aim of maximising its benefits and minimising its risks.

Rotenberg warned that Ireland’s role as a key regulator of internet giants was being watched worldwide, particularly by organisations that advocate for human rights and privacy.

Big responsibility 

“This is a big responsibility for any country, but a responsibility that cannot be shirked,” he said.

“As home to the European headquarters of the world’s biggest social media corporations, Ireland now has a critical responsibility to safeguard fundamental rights in the digital age. 

Enforcement

“Enforcement under the GDPR, and new laws to address the challenges of fake news and hate crimes in cyberspace, should be top priorities for the Irish Government,” he said.

The late Dave Ellis was a community activist who dedicated his career to working on welfare rights, legal aid and legal education, and the annual lecture is held in his memory.

Ellis worked for many years at the Coolock Community Law Centre, now the Centre for Community Law and Mediation in Dublin 5.

FLAC provides legal information, advice and training to thousands of people across Ireland, and deals with up to 25,000 queries annually.

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