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Blog:

Carrying the torch

Published: 21 December 2023

In her last Guernsey Press column as Data Protection Commissioner, Emma Martins reflects on her time at the helm of the regulator and the legacy she hopes to leave behind. 

Time took on a strange quality throughout the pandemic, and has certainly seemed to speed up as I have gotten older so all in all I am finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that the last five years have gone so fast and that my time in this role has come to an end.

Back in 2018, the new data protection law was unveiled for the Bailiwick, in response to the GDPR which came into force across Europe at the same time.
I have been prompted to revisit the words I said at that event recently.

On that day I committed to the audience, the government, industry and the community, that we would do our job without fear or favour, acting with integrity and in a way that was underpinned by ethical conduct. I recognised then, as I do now, that trust and confidence have to be earned. We were given significant powers in the new law and it is important for anyone with significant power not to mistake fear for respect. We have worked hard to fulfil our role in a way that has been true to those values.

I also said at that time that we had to ‘enforce the legal’ but also wanted to ‘influence the social’. I meant that we needed to put consistent, fair and proportionate compliance and investigations processes in place because individuals who make complaints to us about the way their private information has been used (and misused) are entitled to high standards of impartial and independent regulatory support.

And what I meant by ‘influencing the social’, was about recognising that legal compliance is about so much more than dry legal texts or handling complaints.

Firstly, not everyone can engage with legal texts and secondly, if we are positioned to respond only after problems arise, by definition, harms have already been done to individuals. If we can meaningfully engage with questions of compliance before things go wrong, that is better for everyone. By engaging with our community in different ways, we have tried to help nurture a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role data protection plays in areas of our lives that we may not have ever realised or given a second thought.

I also said these words -

“Today is the end of the beginning, now the real work starts”.

And the real work did start. We set about building an office and a team that was true to all the things we committed to in 2018. We are an organisation that has strong values, purpose, culture, governance, direction and a powerful sense of public duty.

There are moments in our lives when the words you read, or hear someone speak, have a profound and lasting impact. They stay with you long after you read or hear them and they shape the way you see the world.
I have had a number of such moments throughout my life. One such time was in 2018, a key moment in the history of data protection here in the Bailiwick and across Europe.

Giovanni Buttarelli was the European Data Protection Supervisor at the time and he delivered the keynote address at the Conference for Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels that year.

He started by saying that “this is not a privacy or data protection conference. Rather, it is a conference about the human values that underpin privacy and data protection.”


The thoughts that had been whirling in my mind about the role of data protection and of regulators and how to strive for meaningful outcomes landed with such clarity when I heard that speech and they have stayed with me ever since.

The manifesto he was working on when he died in 2019, Privacy 2030, a New Vision for Europe, was finished by some of the world’s most prominent thinkers in this field who recognised the critical importance of his wisdom, intellect, vision and humanity. We surely need all of those things more than ever.

Buttarelli gave me the courage to look at things differently, to try and be creative, to not be afraid of facing challenges with fresh eyes.

I know that not everyone cares about data or its protection. I know that some people baulk at the compliance duties the law requires of them. And I know that some organisations have not welcomed regulatory action when it was taken. That is all entirely understandable.

Our job is not to win a popularity contest, it is to be the voice of those who are not heard, to act as a tool of accountability and rebalance for people who have no power. I am hugely proud of the work that goes on quietly and largely unseen at our office in this regard.

Data impacts individuals, society, the economy, and the environment. Buttarelli understood that better than anyone.

We had an opportunity in 2018, to build a regulatory regime that makes a real difference to the lives of everyone in our community as well as to put the Islands on the map as a jurisdiction that looks after data (aka people!) well. I believed then, as I do now, that such an approach is not only socially and culturally beneficial, it is also economically important. Data is valuable and if we are known as a jurisdiction that understands that value and looks after the data well, that can only be a good thing for our reputation.

But it also needs leadership and vision. At a time of rapidly advancing technologies, we need to be on the front foot. Politicians, industry leaders, educationalists and others need to play their part. We have a choice, we can lead from the front or we can follow from behind.

If we want to build a data-driven world built on human-centric values, it is incumbent upon all of us to take responsibility. Chapter one has now been written but it was not written by one person, it was written by many. The following chapters will also need many contributors.

At my last speaking engagement in this role, I spoke with Advocate Richard Field at a Chamber event about the work we have done and the challenges, as well as opportunities, that lie ahead.
I am so grateful to Richard for the following words at the end of the summing up of that event -

“...getting the message out there and continuing the conversations has to be the foundation (for establishing guard rails and responsible technology). Emma leaves her post…having delivered that message, built those foundations and established clear standards, all things that will stand us in good stead. It is now for us to maintain and develop that legacy.”

I have loved every minute of being in this role at such an important time. Whilst I may not have won the popularity contest with everyone, I can promise this community that, as a public servant, I have always been clear-eyed about what those two words mean.

My role was not about a job title, or a big office; it was about service.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve this community. I leave behind a team of people that I have worked alongside for these important years. Without exception, they are talented, committed, have a strong sense of purpose and enormous integrity. Proof that even in a small island like ours, the talent is there.

I felt so strongly that day back in 2018 that Buttarelli passed the torch to those of us in the audience and it is now time for me to pass it to someone else. But it is also the time for each of us to carry torches of our own.