Centre for Internet & Society

The Centre for Internet and Society interviewed Jacob Kohnstamm, Dutch Data Protection Authority and Chairman of the Article 29 Working Party.

What activities and functions does your office undertake?

The activities and functions of the Dutch data protection authority can roughly be divided in 4 different categories: supervisory activities, giving advise on draft legislation, raising awareness and international tasks.

The Dutch DPA supervises the legislation applicable in the Netherlands with regard to the use of personal data. The most important law is the Dutch Data Protection Act, but the Dutch DPA also supervises for example the Acts governing data processing by police and justice as well as parts of the Telecoms Act.

The supervisory activities mainly consist of investigating, ex officio, violations of the law, with the focus on violations that are serious, structural and impact a large amount of people. Where necessary, the Dutch DPA can use its sanctioning powers, including imposing a conditional fine, to enforce the law. The Dutch DPA can also decide to examine sector-wide codes of conduct that are submitted to it and provide its views in the form of a formal opinion.

In addition to investigations, the Dutch DPA advises the government, and sometimes the parliament, on draft legislation related to the processing of personal data. Following the Data Protection Act, the government is obliged to submit both primary and secondary legislation related to data processing to the DPA for advice.

As regards awareness-raising, next to publishing the results of the investigations, its views on codes of conduct and its advice on legislation, the Dutch DPA also issues guidelines, on its own initiative, explaining legal norms. Via its websites, the Dutch DPA provides more information to both data subjects and controllers on how data can and cannot be processed. Specifically for data subjects, self-empowerment tools – including standard letters to exercise their rights – are made available. Furthermore, they can contact the Dutch DPA daily via a telephone hotline.

Last but not least, the Dutch DPA participates in several International and European fora, including the Article 29 Working Party of which I am the Chair, the European and the International Conference of data protection and privacy commissioners, of whose Executive Committee I am also the Chair.

What powers does your office have? in your opinion are these sufficient? Which powers have been most useful? If there is a lack, what do you feel is needed?

The Dutch DPA has a broad range investigative powers, including the power to order the controller to hand over all relevant information and entering the premises of the controller unannounced. All organisations subjected to the supervision of the Dutch DPA are obligated to cooperate.

The Dutch DPA also has a considerable range of sanctioning powers, it can for example order the suspension or termination of certain processing operations and can also impose a conditional fine. Currently a bill is before Parliament to provide the Dutch DPA with fining powers as well.

Especially when the bill providing the Dutch DPA with fining powers will be passed, I feel the powers are sufficient, giving us all the necessary enforcement tools to ensure compliance with the law.

How is your office funded?

The Dutch DPA is funded through the government who, together with the parliament, each year determines the budget for the next year. The budget is drafted on the basis of a proposal from the Dutch DPA.

What is the organizational structure of your office and the responsibilities of the key executives?

The Dutch DPA consists of a college of commissioners and the supporting Secretariat, itself consisting of 6 departments and headed by the Director. The Dutch DPA has 2 supervision departments, one for the private and one for the public sector, a legal department, a communications department, an international department and a department providing the operational support.

If India creates a  framework of co-regulation, how would you suggest the overseeing body be structured?

Considering the many differences between India and the Netherlands - and Europe - this is a very hard question to answer. But whatever construction is chosen in India, it is of utmost importance to guarantee the independence of the supervisory authorit(y)(ies), who shall be provided with sufficient and scalable powers to be able to sanction violations.

What legal challenges has your office faced?

The biggest legal challenge we face at the moment is the new European legal framework currently being discussed. It is as yet uncertain whether and when this will enter into force, but it is clear that it will bring new challenges for our office.

What are the main differences between your offices?

Generally, I think that the differences between my office and the UK and Canadian offices mostly stem from our different legal and cultural backgrounds, especially the difference between the common law and codified law systems.

In addition, the norms and powers differ per supervisory authority. The Dutch DPA for example can enter a building without prior notice, while the ICO, if I understand correctly, can only enter with the consent of the supervised organisation.

I however prefer to look at the similarities and possibilities to overcome our differences, because I think that we all feel that providing a high level of data protection and ensuring user control are all of our main priorities.

Naturally, I am very curious to hear from Chrisopher and Chantal as well.

What are the most recent privacy developments for each of your respective offices?

The technological developments of the past decades and the increasing use of smartphones and tablets, have also made privacy developments necessary and have obliged us, as data protection authorities, to consider the rules and norms in this new environment.

What would you broadly recommend for a privacy legislation for India?

In my view the privacy legislation in India should in any case contain the basic principles of the protection of personal data, applicable to both the public and the private sector. Naturally with some exceptions for law enforcement purposes.

Furthermore, the Indian law should protect the imported data of citizens from other parts of the world as well, including the EU.

And as mentioned in my answer to question 5, it is of utmost importance that the Indian legislation guarantees the establishment of (a) completely independent supervisory authorit(y)(ies), provided with sufficient sanctioning powers, to supervise compliance with the legislation also of the government, including police and justice.

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