Giovanni Buttarelli: A Personal Tribute

Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), died on 20 August aged 62 near the end of his five year term. Giovanni had a warm and mutually supportive relationship with Privacy Laws & Business for more than 25 years. His passing has led me to reflect on some highlights over this long period.

When I first met Giovanni in March 1992, he greeted me warmly as I entered his office at the Ministry of Justice in Rome. I travelled there to research his work drafting Italy’s Data Protection Bill and he was evidently pleased that I would provide an update to the wider international privacy law community, which I did in the October 1992 PL&B Report. The friendly atmosphere, enhanced by our convivial lunch in the Rome sunshine, always permeated our contacts in future years.

As promised, when the time was right, he wrote an exclusive article in the June 1996 edition of the PL&B Report where he explained the background to Italy’s Data Protection Bills and summarised their main features.

We renewed our friendship at each Privacy and Data Protection Commissioners’ Annual Conference which in the landmark year of 2000 was hosted by the Garante, Italy’s Data Protection Authority, and held in Venice, providing a unique elegance to the event. Each day the participants took small boats out to the island where the conference took place. While the spotlight fell on some of the lengthy presentations, Giovanni was in his element taking care of the organisational aspects as Secretary-General of the Garante. The medieval Arsenale was the memorable venue for the evening drinks reception, where in a spellbinding theatrical flourish, a curtain was pulled aside to reveal a symphony orchestra, which delighted us with a concert.

Giovanni’s flair was matched by his seriousness of purpose. He and the head of the Garante, Professor Stefano Rodota, readily agreed to my proposal for a Roundtable to help companies understand Italy’s data protection code before it was due to enter into force in January 2004. This successful event in November 2003 was generously hosted in the Garante’s conference room, complete with simultaneous interpretation.

Giovanni’s transition to becoming Assistant EDPS in 2009 and then to succeed Peter Hustinx as EDPS in 2014 enabled him to deploy his experience, wisdom and humour to good effect on a Europewide, indeed worldwide canvas.

We were able to capture his vision and relish for his new position when Laura Linkomies, Editor, conducted an illuminating interview in which he explained the dominant themes which would mark his term as EDPS, published in the February 2015 edition of the PL&B International Report.

As a solo speaker and a panel member, he graced PL&B’s Annual International Conferences in Cambridge. In July 2015 he spoke on The new European Data Protection Supervisor’s Priorities and in July 2017 on The transition from the EU Art. 29 Data Protection Working Party to the EU Data Protection Board

Between these two events, Giovanni hosted a PL&B Roundtable with the EDPS at his Brussels office in March 2016 at which he and senior members of his staff spoke about the work being done in their respective areas. I heard him several times acknowledge the work of PL&B’s Asia Pacific Editor, Professor Graham Greenleaf, for his research in identifying countries globally that have a privacy law.

I watched with sadness his declining health and made sure I spoke to him at every possible occasion. Last October, he gave a bravura performance explaining his vision of privacy as a fundamental right and its ethical dimensions at the Privacy and Data Protection Commissioners’ International Conference which he hosted in Brussels. The conference title reflected his vision: Debating Ethics: Dignity and respect in data driven life. He had wanted the EDPS to host this event one or two years earlier, perhaps sensing his failing health. He gave a magnificent speech about privacy values and received a standing ovation from the audience of several hundred people in the European Parliament’s Chamber, the symbolic epicentre of European democratic values.

He always looked for a solution to a seemingly intractable problem, such as the ICO’s role on the European Data Protection Board if the UK leaves the European Union. He stated at the conference that it is his aim to “arrange the architecture to find a solution” to keep the ICO actively engaged with the European Data Protection Board. Although the UK would not in the future have the right to a place on the EDPB if the UK leaves the EU, it could be achieved by a treaty between the EU and the UK to this effect.

I saw him for the last time at the CPDP Conference in Brussels in January this year. From the start in 1992, he was always very encouraging about our work at Privacy Laws & Business. The last thing he said to me in January when I told him about the title for this year's PL&B 32nd Annual International Conference, the GDPR's influence ripples around the world was "perfect".

As the EDPS, he was surrounded by an exceptionally talented team who were inspired and driven by his energy. We have lost a leader of the international privacy laws “family.” We must all work to continue and fulfil his vision.

Stewart Dresner, Founder and Chief Executive, Privacy Laws & Business