Privacy Commissioner posts his peeve about the power of private companies (on Twitter) after social media giants gag Trump

The Point of Order team was alerted by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union to the Privacy Commissioner’s  “crusade” for government regulation, apparently to curb the rights of corporate  giants in the social media game to decide who may post what sorts of material on their websites.

Twitter and Facebook have blocked US President Donald Trump, a serial tweeter, after a mob – apparently incited by his language – stormed Capitol Hill and after years of his persistently posting lies and inflammatory statements.

The Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, seems to be welcoming the gagging of Trump while pressing for greater state control of their operations.   

Just a few months ago, the commissioner was delighting in the long-overdue passage of brand-new privacy legislation.

His official website last November reported that, in June, Parliament had passed the new law following considerable debate.  

Technology has revolutionised the way people disclose, share and release information and the new Privacy Act attempts to address some of the concerns about how the original 1993 law functioned. Perhaps most significantly, a privacy breach notification system comes into force and the Privacy Commissioner has greater powers to enforce compliance.

It seems the new legislation should have addressed concerns he is now raising about social media in a post on a social media platform.

His grievances are highlighted today under the headline NZ Privacy Commissioner critical of Facebook and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump

The New Zealand Herald report says:

NZ Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has taken to social media to criticise social media platforms for banning US President Donald Trump.

Edwards’ beef is not so much over whether POTUS deserves his ban, but the fact that online justice is being divvied out at the whim of private companies – angling for good PR rather than any real change – rather than regulators.

“The Twitter and Facebook bans are arbitrary, cynical, unprincipled and further evidence that regulation of social media platforms is urgently required,” Edwards posted to Twitter on Saturday night, from his personal account.

“We should not be abdicating responsibility for the tough policy decisions required, and delegating responsibility for our community standards to conflicted corporates.”

Hmm.  Those remarks have been reproduced in a privately owned newspaper.    

Does Edwards want regulations to embrace newspapers and broadcasting media, too, to crimp their right to decide what they publish and what to reject and to exercise self-censorship? 

This aspect of the Trump gag is made plain further down the the NZ Herald report:   

Kate Ruane, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – which has so often been in conflict with the President – told the New York Times, “We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

She added, “President Trump can turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others — like the many Black, brown and L.G.B.T.Q. activists who have been censored by social media companies — will not have that luxury.”

In other words, the problem is not to protect people’s privacy but – to the contrary – to enable them to push their ideas (and prattle) to a bigger audience.

But the reasons for regulating Facebook and Twitter are not the issue for Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Jordan Williams.  Rather, he complains the commissioner has jumped on to the controversy around the Trump ban 

“ …  despite it having nothing to do with privacy.”

Williams accuses Edwards of cheapening his office by

sabre-rattling on every issue under the sun and using his taxpayer-funded pulpit to make political points…”

Does it matter that the NZ Herald said Edwards posted to Twitter from his personal account?

Williams further says taxpayers fund the Privacy Commissioner as a watchdog on the state – and there’s plenty going on within his sphere of authority to keep him busy.

For example:

“The latest data breach at the Reserve Bank, which is reported to have exposed personal information, is what John Edwards should be talking about – scrutinising our public institutions. Instead he’s chasing irrelevant rabbits – American corporates – on an issue for which he has no responsibility.”

Whether Edwards’ arguments about Facebook and Twitter are correct is immaterial to Williams, who insists

“ … they are simply not the points for him to make. It seems he lacks the understanding or decorum for someone in his position. 

“Taxpayers want the Privacy Commissioner to focus on the job he’s paid to do – looking at the Government’s rollout of facial recognition technology for example.”

Whatever the commissioner’s focus, he is unlikely to forego using Facebook and Twitter as an act of protest on a point of principle.  His annual report for 2019/20 makes plain he and his staff make great use of social media for spreading his messages about privacy issues. 

And let’s not forget the PM and her Minister of Foreign Affairs find it useful, too.  It enables them to duck the questions that would be raised at a press conference.   


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