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Austrian privacy chief handed leash to EU's data protection beast

Group warms up for greater powers once GDPR hits

By Rebecca Hill

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The leader of the Austrian data protection authority has been elected chair of the body responsible for helping organisations follow European privacy laws.

Andrea Jelinek will take the reins at the Article 29 Working Party from the French authority's president, Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who has led the body for the past four years.

Her election was announced today at a press conference examining the progress made by the group, which is made up of the chiefs of all the European Union's data protection agencies along with the European Data Protection Supervisor and the European Commission.

Falque-Pierrotin said the body, which is responsible for putting EU laws into context, has changed its focus and working culture over the past four years, shifting from being just a group of experts to a more operational footing.

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This includes working more closely with stakeholders, saying that the guidance it issues is now created after greater consultation with businesses.

However, the group remains predominantly an advisory body, and some hope it will wield more influence once the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25, when it will be rebranded the European Data Protection Board.

This body will have broadly the same role, but more legal independence from the Commission and its guidance and recommendations are expected to have greater heft.

Falque-Pierrotin would not be drawn on the UK's continued membership of the EDPB once it has left the bloc in March next year. The UK government wants the Information Commissioner to retain her place at the table, but observers are sceptical.

In her introductory remarks setting out the body's success as the WP29, Falque-Pierrotin said it had played an important role in keeping the US and European Commission on a strict schedule during negotiations over the Privacy Shield data-transfer deal – but again steered clear of the group's opinion on the deal itself. She also praised its role in balancing national and EU-wide needs during GDPR talks.

However, the group only finalised the last of the 12 sets of guidelines for organisations to follow when preparing for the GDPR this week – a delay that has prompted criticism from those trying to comply with the incoming rules.

When asked about this delay, Falque-Pierrotin said: "If you want guidance based on the realities on the ground, you need to take the time to ask professionals what they think about the subjects."

The pair were also asked about the Commission's recent endorsement of horizontal provisions for cross-border data flows and data protection as part of trade agreements.

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The Commission said that the aim was to ensure that trade agreements "cannot be used to challenge the strong EU rules" on data protection, while ensuring that data can flow between the EU and other countries.

On making the announcement, it said it would "now" inform other institutions, including WP29 – Jelinek confirmed the body had not yet been briefed on the plan.

Falque-Pierrotin added, though, that the issue was "not entirely new", and that the group had been "very concerned" about ensuring the right balance.

"From us, there is no opposition between an economic trend to increase data flows and the necessity to answer the social expectation through guarantees related to data protection," she said.

"We believe the combination of the two makes data flows stronger. And we will repeat that to the Commission and to anyone who wants to ask the question." ®

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