Bob Rothman ’72: Leading in an Emerging Legal Field
A few years ago, General Motors Corp. decided to create an internal electronic phone book that would, for instance, allow employees in Detroit to look-up colleagues in Rüsselsheim, Germany. While it is common, and often necessary, for companies within the United States to create similar databases for internal use, the transfer of this type of information from European Union countries is illegal. Bob Rothman ’72, GM’s chief privacy officer, explains the situation:
“The collection of personal information is much more strictly regulated in the EU than in the U.S.,” Rothman said. “In the EU, any information associated with an individual is private: a phone number, address, hat size, or even the name of a pet. We couldn’t put the names of our European employees in the directory. How can you be a functional international company and not know who’s working for you?”
Because of EU regulations, companies are not allowed to collect personal information without a legal basis. Moreover, they are not allowed to send personal information from Europe to countries that do not meet EU privacy standards, such as the United States. After months of work, Rothman and GM were able to create the directory because of the Safe Harbor, by which GM agreed to treat the personal data in accordance with EU-type rules. The differences between data privacy laws in the U.S. and other countries have led large companies such as GM to create the position of chief privacy officer, a position that did not exist as recently as 10 years ago.
“Privacy law is the wave of the future,” Rothman said. “It’s important for people to understand that as computers and telecommunications become more pervasive the concept of privacy and how to protect it is increasingly consequential. It’s like environmental law was 35 years ago. Frankly, people ignored environmental matters at that time, but as people became aware of the issues, legislation followed, and now it’s a standard area of law. In a very short time, privacy will be a standard area of the law.”
For the past 30 years, Rothman has been working on international legal matters for GM. In a way, it all began during study hall in high school in Toledo, Ohio.
“My school started a Sino-Soviet study center,” Rothman said. “A wrestler in my study hall dared me to take Chinese, and I took him up on it.”
As it turns out, Rothman enjoyed the language so much that he became a Chinese major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He studied Mandarin Chinese at Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, working on the side as an English teacher. Additionally, he received National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships to study Chinese at the University of Hawaii and Columbia University.
“Learning Chinese isn’t as difficult as people think,” he said. “There are four tones in Mandarin – a word such as ‘ma’ has four different meanings depending on the tone. There are no tenses. It’s a good trade-off; it’s like memorizing the gender of a word in a romance language.”
Rothman returned to Ohio to attend law school and, after graduating in December of 1971, went to work for GM as an attorney doing marketing and distribution work. In 1978, he was placed in charge of the Asia/Pacific Overseas Legal Matters Section, and within three years he became the attorney-in-charge of all overseas legal matters. In 1984, he moved to Rüsselsheim, Germany, to head the European Office of the GM legal staff. In 1986, he moved to Zurich, Switzerland to become the general counsel for GM Europe, and in 1992 he became the vice-president of General Motors International Operations, Inc., as well. While in Switzerland, he served as the chairman of the Doing Business in Switzerland Chapter of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.
“Living in Switzerland was great in terms of culture,” he said. “I became interested in opera while I was there. Life is a lot slower – nothing is open on Sundays.”
After 13 years in Europe, Rothman moved back to the U.S. in 1997 to become the general counsel for Delphi Automotive Systems, a unit of GM at the time. At the same time, he received an MBA through Duke University’s Global Executive MBA Program. When Delphi and GM split, he stayed with GM, becoming the director of legal affairs for the e-commerce unit of GM in 1998 and the chief privacy officer in 2002. In the coming years, he will be kept busy by the continuing effort to balance the vastly different views on privacy held by different countries around the world.
“One of the big issues emerging is the absolute conflict between the new e-discovery rules in the U.S. and the data protection rules in Europe,” he continued. “This is particularly a problem for multi-national companies. For instance, a particular product might be engineered in Germany. If there is a product liability suit in the U.S., the company will get discovery requests for information that might be in Germany. Under the European laws, if an engineer signs an engineering report, that report then becomes personal information. Even internal e-mails are considered personal and fall under data protection rules, so the company can wind up being caught between U.S. and European courts.”