The EU’s top data protection chief, Giovanni Buttarelli, a key architect of GDPR and one of the first to question the morality of companies which do just enough to comply with the law in their quest to exploit the use of personal data, has died at the age of 62.
Buttarelli was appointed European Data Protection Supervisor in 2014, having served as his predecessor Peter Hustinx’s deputy since 2009.
Prior to that, Buttarelli was secretary general of the Italian data protection authority for 12 years. He also served on the Italian judiciary from 1986 until his death, becoming a judge of the Court of Cassation in 2006. Buttarelli was also an advisor at the Italian justice ministry between 1989 and 1997.
In a statement, his office confirmed that Buttarelli had passed away surrounded by his family in Italy. It added: “We are all profoundly saddened by this tragic loss of such a kind and brilliant individual. Throughout his life Giovanni dedicated himself completely to his family, to the service of the judiciary and the European Union and its values.
“His passion and intelligence will ensure an enduring and unique legacy for the institution of the EDPS and for all people whose lives were touched by him. Ciao Giovanni.”
Buttarelli has also been credited with pushing tech giants to consider the ethics of what they do, rather than just focusing on compliance, insisting that “compliance with the law is not enough”.
In his closing speech at the International Conference of Data Protection & Privacy Conference last year, Buttarelli said: “What then is the relationship of ethics and the law? From my perspective, ethics come before, during and after the law. It informs how laws are drafted, interpreted and revised. It fills the gaps where the law appears to be silent. Ethics is the basis for challenging laws. Remember that slavery was legal. Child labour and censorship are still legal in many jurisdictions.”
Data protection chiefs have led the tributes to Buttarelli. UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would miss the “generosity and warmth” that made him a friend, and highlighted his “knowledge and insight” as a colleague: “I’m sure I speak for everyone at the ICO who ever met or worked with Giovanni when I say we are all truly saddened to hear this news. Our thoughts are with his family, colleagues and loved ones.”
Referring to last year’s speech, Denham added: “I’m not sure anyone has expressed the key data protection challenge society faces today more clearly or more succinctly. That was Giovanni’s skill. He had an incredible knowledge of the law he had helped to shape, but more than that he had a gift for understanding what the laws and statutes meant to people in the real world.”
European Data Protection Board chair Andrea Jelinek commented: “Throughout his career, Giovanni worked tirelessly to raise awareness and to increase transparency regarding data protection law, not just in Europe, but around the world.”
Even Apple chief executive Tim Cook has paid his respects, despite the fact that his company is facing at least two investigations into breaches of GDPR. He tweeted: “Heartbroken by the loss of my friend Giovanni Buttarelli, a visionary who advanced the cause of privacy in Europe and around the world. Our thoughts are with his family and all who loved him. Giovanni was a great man, and we are forever in his debt.”
It is understood that Buttarelli’s deputy, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, will take on the lead role until a permanent successor is officially appointed.
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