by Vincenzo Tiani
Two years ago I was on holiday in Berlin when I received a message from my friend Rocco Panetta giving me terrible news: Giovanni Buttarelli had left us. It was news I hoped not to receive since the then outgoing European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) had announced his re-election despite a terrible illness that was causing him many problems, even if he did not let it show. In the latter part of his career, he had been limiting his presence at conferences and events, but even on video, he was always a pleasure to listen to. Buttarelli, who was a magistrate, had worked side by side with Stefano Rodotà at the Italian Data Protection Authority and had immediately contributed with him to the formation of the Italian Authority first and then the European one. Rocco Panetta, who at that time was in the team with Rodotà and Buttarelli at the Garante between Rome and Brussels, shared many stories about it.
Unfortunately, I was not fortunate enough to be a friend of Giovanni’s, but we had met on several occasions in Brussels and I had always been struck by his affability and willingness to answer my questions about privacy and the GDPR that was making its way around the world. The first time was five years ago when he came as a guest to the master’s degree course where I was studying and for which I had moved to Brussels. The GDPR, the European regulation for the protection of personal data that a few years later would be known and copied all over the world, was not yet in force and as a student I was already fascinated by it, sensing its revolutionary scope. One of the things that still strikes me today is how this law required the adoption of simple and clear language. So it was that, with the complicity of speaking to a co-national, I began with a “Ciao” before asking my question. Since that first meeting, I took advantage of every event to ask him a few questions, attracted by his ability to respond with competence, knowledge and vision to any doubts I might have about these topics, which for me, and for many, are so interesting and often so complex.
Just a few months before he left us forever, I had met him at the 40th international privacy conference he organised in Brussels where he had been applauded by Tim Cook, then the guest of honour. Tim Cook thanked his friend Giovanni for what he was doing, for how he was inspiring other countries to take privacy to heart and adopt legislation similar to Europe’s, something the Apple CEO hoped would happen in the United States. At that time, it was October 2018 and GDPR had been in force for a few months, Buttarelli was already illuminating the new path to take: establishing a sustainable ethic for the digital society. As I reported for Wired at the time, he didn’t hide his concerns that humans were increasingly delegating to machines, from killer drones to algorithms for deciding sentences, to the carbon emissions required to make blockchain work, or the algorithms that decide what we should watch. “These are all practices that, although legal, have a profound effect on people, society, the environment, human dignity itself. It’s time to think about a clear moral code.”
That day, although I knew it was institutionally inappropriate, I asked Francesco Albinati of his staff if I could take a photo with him as he was in fact a guiding light for me in the field I had chosen. Buttarelli, despite being tired after the interviews, gladly took it “but only because I was the biggest Retweeter in the EDPS”.
Fortunately, Buttarelli left us his Manifesto, full of ideas and his vision, something I have always appreciated in him because I have always struggled to find it in the people in the institutions who are very good with agendas but often lack vision. In that Manifesto, he did not hide the fact that today data is power and an underclass of people is being created who do not have the tools to defend themselves against the abuse of their personal data and find it hard to understand the underlying logic. He talked about the impact of technology on the environment, the need for more diversity in company boards, and imposing a moratorium on the adoption of dangerous technologies, including facial recognition for mass surveillance.
This is what Giovanni Buttarelli was to me, one of the giants of privacy who brought honour to our country in the world.