NZ privacy watchdog seeks greater power over Facebook

NZ privacy watchdog seeks greater power over Facebook

Privacy Commissioner seeking new enforcement provisions as part of an overhaul of privacy laws

New Zealand's top privacy enforcer is seeking greater powers to regulate Facebook as the social media giant grapples with a tough new privacy regime in Europe and investigations around the globe over its handling of personal data.

New Zealand Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said he was seeking new enforcement provisions as part of an overhaul of privacy laws now being considered by parliament.

Edwards and Facebook have been at loggerheads over whether the tech giant was bound by New Zealand law since March, when Edwards asserted the U.S. company had broken local rules by refusing a request by a New Zealand citizen to access personal information held on the accounts of other users.

“What we did with Facebook is issue a legally binding demand and they just ignored and thumbed their nose at it and refused to comply," Edwards told Reuters in an interview this week.

Facebook declined to comment. In March it said it was disappointed in the decision and that the commissioner had made a "broad and intrusive request for private data".

Facebook had argued that customers in New Zealand were governed by Irish privacy law, along with most other non-U.S. users.

But in April Facebook confirmed that it was changing its terms of service agreements so that its 1.5 billion members in Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America would not fall under the European Union's strict General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect on May 25.

Instead, Facebook now specifies that international users are subject to U.S. privacy laws. There are 2.5 million Facebook account holders in New Zealand, according to the privacy commissioner out of a population of around 4.5 million.

The question of how local laws apply to multinational internet companies with large numbers of customers in scores of countries is an increasingly fraught topic as governments seek greater control on issues ranging from privacy to hate speech. New Zealand's privacy laws, created in 1993, are currently being rewritten.

Edwards was expected this week to ask parliament to grant his office powers similar to that of other regulators, including the ability to take companies to court and seek fines.

He said he was watching the outcome of international regulators' investigations into the scandal involving Facebook and the now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, before deciding whether to open his own inquiry.

But, in the meantime, Edwards said he had deleted his personal Facebook account, concerned that the terms of agreement had changed so many times that he no longer had control of a "reservoir" of personal information and wanted a "re-set". He detailed the process on popular news website The Spinoff.

"I just wanted to explain to people how they could re-assert their autonomy and their control over their own personal information," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Stephen Coates)

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