This week, Private Eye reported that the publishers Kogan Page had withdraw a book about the GDPR by Ardi Kolah, after they received allegations of plagiarism from several sources. Most references to the GDPR Handbook have been scrubbed from Kolah’s online history and Kogan Page’s website is terse, to say the least. The fate of Kolah’s book is interesting not only because the high profile author is involved in both Henley Business School’s GDPR course and the British Computer Society’s Data Protection Certificate, but because Kolah has repeatedly sought to build his reputation through an association with the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.
The ‘About the Author’ section of his book describes Kolah as having “worked closely” with Denham, and there is some substance to the claim. Not only did Denham write the foreword for the book (and also for Kolah’s luxury leather-bound edition of the GDPR), she invited him to be one of the judges of her inaugural Data Protection Officer award.
Denham’s foreword describes him admiringly as a veteran of the Data Protection sector. She describes the UK’s data protection community before her arrival from Canada as a “small group of people ready to help each other out to raise standards“. She claims Kolah was someone who “flew the flag for data protection many years before it broke into the mainstream with the GDPR“. After some flannel, she returns to the theme: “Ardi and others of his generation often walked a rather lonely path in their efforts to have data protection taken seriously by the mainstream” and praises the book as “authoritative“.
I made an FOI request to the ICO asking if she wrote the foreword because I had a sneaking suspicion that Kolah himself might have been the author. The response was emphatic: “The Commissioner wrote the foreword and was the author of the Word document that was sent to Mr Kolah with the foreword in it. Mr Kolah had no input in the content of the foreword, did not ask for any input and did not ask for any copy approval of the foreword. The version sent to him on 6th April represented the Commissioner’s final wording to appear in the book unedited and unabridged.” This means that Denham is entirely responsible for the claims about Ardi Kolah’s career in Data Protection that appear in the foreword, and I think that’s a problem.
For most of his career, Kolah has been a PR guy. He worked as head of communications or PR for a variety of different organisations between 1995 and (at least) 2012. He worked for the BBC up until 1995, but after that, he did PR for Arthur Andersen, Cancer Research and Logica among others. His own CV on LinkedIn shows him as ‘Global Head of Public Relations’ for Brit Insurance until 2012. The notion that Kolah was flying the flag for Data Protection for “many years” and he was part of a generation of people who worked thanklessly in the DP mines is plainly unsustainable. Even now, his Twitter account describes him as a “Commentator on all things sales and marketing and social media“. Kolah’s own timeline doesn’t mention Data Protection until 2012, when he says founded a company called Go DPO, and even so, it’s hard to square his version with other available information.
An experienced training consultant called Darren Verrian is also on LinkedIn, and he says that he started work on Go DPO in May 2015, three years after Kolah. This is interesting because Verrian describes himself as ‘co-founder’ of the business. Furthermore, Companies House shows that on 2nd June 2015, Kolah and Verrian registered two companies, one called Go DPO EU Recruitment (which was dissolved in February 2018), and another called Go DPO EU Compliance (which is still trading). Subsequently, they registered Go DPO EU Advisory Services in February 2016 (dissolved in March 2018), and finally Go DPO EU Consultancy Services in August 2017 (also still trading). Weirdly, despite his claim that he was running Go DPO in 2012, a company called Genworth Financial announced on 28th May 2012 that they had hired Kolah as their Director of Communications. Kolah doesn’t mention Genworth Financial anywhere on his LinkedIn CV.
I think it’s impossible to reconcile Denham’s claims about Kolah’s longstanding involvement in Data Protection with his own CV, but the contradiction between Kolah and Verrian’s respective claims and the facts on Companies House make it worse. As far as I can see, Ardi Kolah is not a Data Protection veteran: he’s just good at PR. Since I started to make mischief at his expense, several people have approached me with stories of Kolah’s error-strewn, self-promoting performances at conferences, and his now-disgraced book is an bloated mix of turgid management-speak and basic errors.
I didn’t identify the examples of apparent plagiarism or report them to Kogan Page, but I have seen them and it’s obvious to me why the publishers withdrew the book. I think Kolah owes everyone who bought the book an apology, and Kogan Page owes them a refund (I’m aware that they did offer a refund to at least one purchaser on the proviso that he returned the book). Perhaps Kolah did Data Protection work before May 2015 but I can’t find it. Maybe he can reconcile his and Verrian’s accounts and explain why no variant of a company called Go DPO was registered in 2012. But even if 2012 really is when he started, the way Denham characterises him in her foreword is at best wildly exaggerated, and a slap in the face for those of us who really have been working on UK data protection for a long time.
Moreover, unless he can refute the plagiarism allegations (and having seen what they’re based on, it would require a lot more than spin to achieve that), I think Kolah should resign from three of his current roles. There is no way that someone guilty of plagiarism should have a role on an exam board, at a prestigious business school or as Editor-in-Chief of a widely published journal. If he does not, then the BCS, Henley Business School and the editorial board of Journal of Data Protection and Privacy (many of whom are quoted in the book endorsing it) should sack him. They cannot be seen to tolerate plagiarism. Whether his friends at Amplified Business Content (who organise many of the conferences that Kolah speaks at) or Hitachi (who employ him as a part-time DPO) still think he’s an appropriate person to work with is none of my business.
A more important question than the fate of Mr Kolah is what this mess says about Elizabeth Denham. Kolah trades on his ‘close working relationship‘ with the Commissioner. Denham should have shut down this inappropriate use of her name, but instead, she promoted both Kolah’s book and the man himself by asking him to be a judge of the DPO award. When I made an FOI request to the ICO about Denham’s relationship with Kolah, they were in denial, refusing to accept that writing a foreword was an endorsement:
“it may be helpful to note that we do not consider that writing a foreword in an official capacity to be an endorsement or to be otherwise advertising a commercial product. A decision to write a foreword or review is normally taken on the basis of the ICO being aware of the author’s standing as a practitioner or expert, and the value the book adds to the information rights community”
ICO comments received by Private Eye suggest that while Denham definitely wrote the foreword, she may not have even read the book. Kolah sent it to her, but the ICO said she did not study the book, relying instead on her ‘prior confidence‘ in the author. Along with several other people, I have asked the ICO to show what evidence Denham relied on to make her assertions about Kolah’s long history in UK data protection. They admit that no such information is held. Denham made assertions to support her friend and help sell his book, and I don’t think she can substantiate them.
The Information Commissioner should not endorse commercial products, and this isn’t the first time she’s been willing to lend her authority when doing so. Kolah’s book has turned out to be damaged goods, but if she’d had the sense not to endorse anything, she wouldn’t have this problem. What this says about Denham’s judgement isn’t pretty, and I think it’s untenable for her to stay silent on the matter. Rather than throwing spokespersons under the bus, Denham should explain it herself. What due diligence did she do on Kolah? Did anyone even Google him? Why does she think he’s got a long and distinguished career in Data Protection when he hasn’t? And most of all, how can she assure us that she’s independent when she can be persuaded to make a mistake as big as this?