Giovanni Buttarelli

by Maria on August 22, 2019

A few years ago I was on a panel about the Internet of Things. There were five of us, plus the moderator, sitting in a line across the stage of the Brussels convention centre; reps from Google and, I think, a big Korean chaebol, Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski the Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor (though he might have still been the Polish DPC at that point), and me. I was there – I think – because the moderator knew me and I can usually be relied upon in these situations to stir a little, but not too much.

It all took a while to get going because Google, a major sponsor, took some of the allotted time to screen a video about how the Internet of Things would also include the Internet of Clothes, and how this would be great for Europeans because the ‘smart’ fabrics in question were hand-woven French jacquard. The infomercial was followed by a lengthy and remarkably self-serving presentation from the Google executive, and we all had to sit up on the stage looking interested for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. Finally, the panel-proper began and our moderator lobbed a softball for each of us to answer in turn.

Everyone was quite measured and politely took their cue from the Google framing, which was that Europe needed to ‘focus on innovation’, ‘provide an enabling regulatory environment’, and basically make the Single Market safe for surveillance capitalism. What none of us realised was that once the video had finished screening behind us, it had been replaced by a live Twitter feed which the now quite grumpy audience was quickly populating with dissent. We on the stage couldn’t read the sarcasm and frustration that had filled up the hashtag, so when it came to my turn and I let rip a quick but genuinely exasperated little monologue that ended with a rhetorical question about how we data-subjects would even afford to buy smart things after we’d all been automated out of existence, the applause and even a few whoops took us all by surprise.

Giovanni caught my eye and grinned. Anyone, and I mean anyone, in receipt of a smile like that – loaded as it was with canniness, grace, deep and multiply enfolded intelligence, and sheer downright mirth – would walk a long way to see it again.

The panel then screeched around a u-turn, with Giovanni and Wojciech now released and unabashedly proselytising for human rights and European values and how they are not inimical to technological and social progress but actually underpin it. As the panel finished, the industry guys seeped away and Giovanni, Wojciech and I clustered at the side of the stage, talking quickly and happily. Then Wojciech stood back for a moment.

“You think it’s a coincidence the three of us, all from very Catholic countries, are so obsessed with protecting our privacy?”

We all burst out laughing, then finished the card exchange and went on our way.

I met Giovanni again last October, at the annual conference of data protection regulators and tech policy experts the European Data Protection Supervisor holds in the parliament building in Brussels. It was a triumphant event for him, a crowning achievement following the successful implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation. He could easily have just sat back and enjoyed the moment. But that was not how Giovanni worked. With his devoted and widely respected team, he’d programmed three days for European and global data protection commissioners to go deeper and further in, and work on how privacy and ethics can change how organisations work, how economies behave and even how people think. It was a tour de force and a political life lesson on how you don’t stop when you succeed; to lock in progressive political gains, it’s necessary to keep setting bigger and seemingly wildly ambitious goals that keep the movement going forward.

I gave scene-setter for the public part of the conference, speaking about how we use stories to imagine better futures in order to be able to build them. The conclusion was about the ‘duty of hope’, how despair is unethical and how we don’t get to sit this one out. Giovanni was having difficulty walking by then, so after he opened the conference, he’d stayed on the little podium at the centre of parliament throughout my speech. It was a huge deal for me, speaking to that audience in that space, and I was so glad he was there, sitting just behind. Speaking about the duty of hope, with him just by my left shoulder, I hadn’t earned the right to say those words, but Giovanni certainly would have, and his presence amplified them and re-shaped their meaning from the political to the personal and back again.

At a grand reception the evening before, he’d been at the centre of the mingling crowd, half-leaning against a tall chair. I’ve seen that dynamic before, backstage at big gigs with courtiers jostling and big men dispensing patronage, but here there was no power-play, here, just warmth and joy. He introduced me to his wife and seemed eager for everyone to make meaningful connections to each other. When he spoke about her during the conference on the first and last days, it was with huge pride at her (also enormous) career and real gratitude at her taking time off from it to be part of the week’s events.

Those few days in Brussels amongst over a thousand other people, felt professional but also familial, as Giovanni drew the different strains of his life together. Tim Cook of Apple gave the keynote – setting off a thousand global headlines as he launched Apple’s bid to distinguish itself from the death-wish data-hunger of its rivals – and surprising most of us there with the evident affection and respect he had for someone he must have crossed swords with repeatedly.

On the last day of the conference, Giovanni spoke movingly and purposefully of what remained to be done. He shared a letter from Pope Francis and echoed its call to actively shape digital technology to help us “to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously”. Then he gathered around him his family, his team and, in front of his whole professional community, thanked them and bound us all together. To have been one of the thousand people on their feet, applauding – many also crying both in joy and the anticipation of loss – was a privilege and a memory to treasure.

The news came yesterday of Giovanni’s death in Italy, surrounded once again by his family. Many, many people in my field knew him better than I did. The loyalty and affection of the people who worked for him was palpable, and the tributes to him from around the tech and privacy world are immense. As an Italian judge earlier in his career, Giovanni was well acquainted with human foibles and fallibility. But that knowing, rueful, mischievous smile communicated volumes about his attitude to ever giving up. And, oh my goodness, but he had fun. He is gone, cruelly and far too soon, but would that we all lived so fully, and loved and were loved so deeply.



John Quiggin 08.23.19 at 3:22 am

I like the duty of hope.

I hadn’t heard of Giovanni, but his death seems like a big loss to the world.


anon 08.23.19 at 2:47 pm

What a loss! Thank you for this beautiful text, Giovanni deserves our memories.


JanieM 08.24.19 at 3:43 pm

A beautiful piece as usual, Maria, even though sad, both for those who knew him and for the rest of us too.


Matt_L 08.25.19 at 3:20 am

Thank you for writing this beautiful remembrance. Giovanni Buttareli sounds like a wonderful colleague and someone who was on the side of human rights when it comes to data privacy. Please accept my condolences for your loss and the loss of his family, team and friends. Finally, thank you for telling me about the Duty of Hope. I’ll live up to that.


dePonySum 08.25.19 at 10:31 pm

“The duty of hope” is so much more edifying than Gramsci’s covertly despairing “Optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will”.

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