Privacy law refreshed to reflect the times

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards was in our patch this week, briefing institutions and individuals on far-reaching law changes about to take effect in his patch.

In June this year, following considerable debate, Parliament passed a new Privacy Act ... not that many people noticed, as headlines at the time were dominated by the video of Dunedin MP David Clark which brought the phrase "throwing under the bus" into widespread use.

Privacy has vexed our politicians since the 1980s, when then justice minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer tried but failed to have a privacy right included in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The need to protect private information still existed however, and in 1993 the then National-led government passed the Privacy Act, as was.

While a notable and noteworthy law change in its day, it soon became apparent that the freshly created position of privacy commissioner required greater teeth if it were to achieve the stated intention of ensuring people’s confidential information remained just that.

The other problem with the 1993 Act was how it aged ... 1993 was 11 years before the company which eventually became Facebook was launched, and 14 years before Apple released its first iPhone and infinitely expanded people’s ability to intrude on people’s privacy if they were so minded.

New Zealand’s politicians started to debate the Act in 1991, just months after Tim Berners-Lee had created the first internet browser, an invention which may have sparked more privacy issues than any other, but which MPs were barely cognisant of.

However, as then Invercargill MP Rob Munro said in the second reading debate, "People say that information should be private and that terrible things are being done to us all by computers" — and so it proved.

Fast forward to this year, and Dunedin South MP Clare Curran reminded the House technology had revolutionised the way people disclosed, shared, stored, and released information.

Clare Curran. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Clare Curran. PHOTO: ODT FILES

"The digital revolution that has occurred, much has changed, but the protection of people’s privacy has not been modernised, has not had a value put on it, and that is why this is so important."

To give just one of Ms Curran’s many examples, artificial intelligence or algorithms are now making decisions with people’s private data, a concept which was science fiction in 1993 but business as usual today.

Given the pace technology moves at compared with Parliament - which took an extraordinarily convoluted eight years to pass the Privacy Act 2020 - the new law will no doubt start to look quaint in the not too distant future.

But for now it has attempted to address many of the major concerns about how the 1993 Act functioned.

Perhaps most significantly, a privacy breach notification system comes in to force: if a business or organisation has an issue, it must tell the privacy commissioner.

However, the privacy breach must be one which has caused or is likely to cause serious harm, and that definition will no doubt be the trigger for legal action in the future.

The commissioner now has extra powers, which include the ability to issue a compliance notice which orders adherence to the Privacy Act, and the power to compel organisations to release information held about an individual — previously the commissioner could only mediate and recommend.

Protection of the information of young people has been strengthened, as has the reach of the Act. Overseas businesses or organisations which "carry on business" in this country will be subject to it even if they are not based here — Google, Twitter, Facebook, they are looking at you.

No doubt the effectiveness of that provision will be tested as well, but the overall intention of the Act is clearly to address areas where the previous law was conspicuously inadequate.

Crucial now will be how robust the new law, which comes into effect on December 1, is against the march of time and innovation, forces which bow to no Act of Parliament.

A local win

Dunedin Generation Zero leader Adam Currie has had a victory at the Advertising Standards Authority, which has upheld his complaint that a National Party Facebook advertisement about the Green Party wealth tax proposal was misleading.

The complaint is considered settled as the ad is no longer up, but National might yet appeal the authority’s findings, as it has with other complaints laid against the party.

Dates, places


Rino Tirikatene has recorded his biggest majority for Labour. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Rino Tirikatene. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

So, you might be wondering where Parliament has gone, seeing as we had the election and all.

The Commission Opening of Parliament is next Wednesday, November 25, and the official State Opening of Parliament is the following day.

The Parliamentary sitting programme released in February no longer applies, due to the longstanding principle that the decisions of a previous Parliament do not bind a new one.

The new, yet to be constituted business committee has to recommend a new sitting programme, and until that happens the House will meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays every week.

Parliament was intended to keep meeting until December 17 but expect that to be changed to the previous week ... although in this unpredictable year, anything could still happen.

New role

Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene, along with Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime, were voted in as co-chairman and co-chairwoman of Labour’s Maori caucus on Tuesday.


Sadly, no proscription on gasbags, venal politicians, or hard copy falling off the backs of trucks.


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