This week, the great and the good and some other people descend on Cambridge for the 30th Annual Privacy Laws and Business’ three day Data Protection Conference in Cambridge. It’s a big event, with Data Protection regulators, practitioners and a large collective noun of DP lawyers all milling around St John’s College listening to each other talk. I’ve only been once – no employer I’ve ever worked for wanted to pay, so I ended up pitching PLB a talk about crap Data Protection stories so I could get in for nothing. The cheapest possible ticket is a one day option for charities and the public sector at £437.50 +VAT; for 3 days, that goes up to £1242.50 + VAT, while someone working for a company with more than 500 employees will pay £1775 + VAT, plus more for accommodation or the optional Sunday night dinner. The college bars have extended opening hours in case you have more money to burn.
As PLB’s amusingly vulgar marketing makes clear, this is no dry academic event. For attendees with the requisite funds, the conference is an opportunity to ‘take your place at the privacy top table‘ and enjoy ‘Privileged Access‘ to the various Data Protection regulators in attendance. Emails from PLB promise that DP Authorities such as Helen Dixon from Ireland, Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin from France and our very own Elizabeth Denham will be available for ‘priceless informal one-to-one discussions’ and will be ‘pleased to engage you in discussion‘. Imagine that.
The UK’s Information Commissioner is being particularly accommodating this year. As well as being listed on the conference website as a ‘Supporter’ of this commercial event, the Commissioner herself is giving a talk on Tuesday and chairing another session while no fewer than five ICO staff members will be in attendance (a fact advertised by PLB in the ‘top table’ email). Perhaps most generously of all, Mrs Denham is the star of an advert for the conference, happily plugging the relaxed atmosphere and expert PLB staff while exhorting viewers to attend. And this is where I have a problem.
There’s nothing wrong with the ICO appearing at commercial events like this – big conferences are a legitimate way to make the organisation more visible and get messages out. It’s very different if the ICO is endorsing the event in question. The PLB conference is not a charity or public sector event – it is a commercial conference run for profit. The ICO’s speaking engagement policy says explicitly that ICO officers should avoid accepting invitations where ‘our attendance can be interpreted as ICO endorsement of a commercial organisation over those of competitors‘, and yet Denham has gone further than that, by actively promoting the conference and the expertise of PLB’s staff. The same policy states that the ICO logo must not be displayed when labelled as a ‘supporter’ – which is exactly what PLB are doing with the logo on their website.
I made an FOI request to the ICO about Denham’s appearance in the advert, asking for emails and other correspondence about why she agreed to do it. In the initial response, there was no evidence of an invitation, only emails arranging the filming itself. When I queried this, I was told that the original request was made and agreed to verbally last October, and while there may have been some follow-ups by email shortly thereafter, they will have been deleted because the ICO deletes all emails from everyone’s inbox after six months. So Denham, who famously burnishes her records management credentials, didn’t think it was worth keeping a record of why she had decided to endorse a commercial event, despite breaching her own speaking engagement policy and code of conduct by doing so.
The correspondence I did get was nevertheless illuminating. When I made my request, I used the word ‘advert’ because PLB were describing it as a ‘conference video’ and I wanted to underline what it really was. However, the word ‘advert’ is used routinely by ICO staff in their emails – there is no question that Denham and her staff perceived it as being something else. The content of Denham’s turn came directly from Stewart Dresner, PLB’s Chief Executive. Even specific phrases that she uses (the sickly ‘summer school‘ for example, at which she at least has the decency to laugh while saying) come direct from one of his emails to her. After it was filmed, Denham was keen to check that Dresner thought the video was OK, and he replied with a sentence that should have pulled everyone up short: “I greatly appreciate you taking this step and so effectively endorsing several important features of our conference” (my emphasis). The ICO is an independent regulator; endorsing commercial products or events should be beyond the pale. The ICO’s code of conduct is obviously based on the Civil Service Code, but they have adapted it in a key passage. The Civil Service Code says that officers should not use information they have obtained in the course of their work to favour others, but the ICO goes further:
“You should not misuse your official position, or information acquired during the course of your duties, to further your private interests or those of others
If you are a member of the senior management team, or a member of staff who is either working on a contract or dealing with issues which could raise matters of substance, you should ensure that any possible conflicts of interest are identified at an early stage and that appropriate action is taken to resolve them.”
Senior officers like Robert Parker, the ICO’s head of communications, and Steve Wood, recently appointed Deputy Commissioner after Rob Luke’s mysterious cameo appearance, were involved throughout this correspondence. Even if Denham didn’t think an endorsement could be problematic, her staff should have intervened. Most of the ICO’s senior management were at least copied into the emails I’ve received, and none of them identified a problem in the Commissioner personally endorsing a commercial event in breach of her own policies. There is a telling moment in the correspondence where Dresner complains that PLB were not aware of Denham giving evidence to Parliament. Dresner’s expectation is that PLB will be tipped off about such appearances: “we do suggest that you distinguish between your mass media list, who would receive some media releases, and your specialist media list, who would receive all of them“. It’s clear that Dresner expects special treatment – and why wouldn’t he? The Commissioner herself is advertising his conference.
Nobody at the ICO would ever recommend anything that I did or was involved in because I write stuff like this, so you might think this is all just sour grapes. Given that I don’t think the ICO is an effective regulator, I couldn’t seek their approval even if they would give it but in any case, I don’t want Wilmslow’s endorsement. If I have anything going for me as a itinerant jobbing consultant, it’s that I am independent and I encourage the people I deal with to think and act independently. What’s distasteful about this episode is that the Commissioner, for whom independence isn’t a bonus but a necessity, doesn’t seem to act in the same way. Using the regulator’s name to flog conference places should be inconceivable, and yet this is what Denham has done. However prestigious or expert they may appear, the Information Commissioner should not personally or corporately recommend or endorse commercial products and organisations. This shouldn’t have happened, and it must not happen again.