The most powerful people you've never heard of

You know you’re going up in the world when Apple chief executive Tim Cook gives a speech at your annual work get-together.

Followed immediately by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

And after lunch Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai send video messages.

But if you’re a European data regulator, that’s life now. You matter. At the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, held this year in the European Parliament in Brussels, that shift in power was very evident.

Last year, the lead speaker was the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

This year, the chief executive of the world’s most valuable company chose the gathering for his most high-profile intervention yet on the “crisis” of “weaponised” personal data – a fierce attack which went down a treat with his audience.

“These are not plastic flowers we’re smelling,” a beaming Giovanni Buttarelli declared after Mr Cook finished. High praise indeed from the tough European data protection supervisor, who once described tech firms as the “sweatshops of the connected world”.

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Video: Tech’s big names are talking a lot about data protection now

What’s changed? One law: GDPR. When this sweeping legislation came into operation on 25 May, European data protection regulators suddenly gained vast new powers to investigate and fine even the mightiest of tech behemoths.

“It’s a really exciting time and I think we have a very strong law now,” Helen Dixon, Ireland’s data commissioner told me.

Even among the newly-empowered European commissioners, Ms Dixon is a special case. In the 2000s and early 2010s, one Silicon Valley giant after another based itself in Dublin, mostly for reasons that accountants call “tax efficiency”.

Now that decision – allied with a GDPR mechanism called “one-stop-shop”, which means multinationals can be regulated in the country in which they have their headquarters – means Ms Dixon has power over the European data dealings of firms, including AirBnB, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google.

That’s why, when Facebook was hacked at the end of September, it was Dixon who announced the official European investigation. Talking about that investigation, one of several she is currently pursuing, she promised an assertive approach.

“We’re pleased that the work is under way now that we can bottom out on questions that have been circulating for some time about whether users are getting a fair deal,” she said.

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“We may be challenged in court as we go, but at least we’re going to move forward in terms of driving that better bargain between users and big tech.”

It’s early days, but this could be start of a genuine pushback against the economic model of data surveillance. And with Tim Cook’s latest statement, it appears the data commissioners have found a powerful ally. Game on.

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