Hong Kong needs to balance free speech and privacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 3:11am

Privacy and freedom of speech are not absolute rights, as we may be reminded when they come into conflict. The privacy watchdog has moved to stop the supply of personal data from litigation and bankruptcy records through a smartphone application it says "seriously invades" people's privacy. The mobile app supplies users with the names of litigants, partial ID card numbers, addresses, claims amounts and company directors' data, without the subjects' consent. What sets this case apart is that all this data is already available in the public domain from official sources such as the judiciary, the Official Receiver's Office and the Companies Registry Gazette.

Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang said this highlighted a common misconception that the data was therefore open to unrestricted use. His specific concerns include access to bankruptcy and litigation data by name only without a unique identifier, widening the risk of accidental breach of privacy, and indefinite storage of data. He pointed out that bankruptcy is normally discharged after four to eight years and disclosure of a minor conviction is forbidden if an offender has not reoffended in three years. There is a case for addressing such anomalies. But it is debatable whether the watchdog should be restricting access to publicly available information.

The question is how to strike a balance between protection of privacy and the free flow of information fundamental to Hong Kong's standing as a financial centre. This can be a complex issue in a society where privacy and freedom of speech are core values. The government recently tried to restrict access to the addresses and ID card numbers of company directors in the Companies Registry - with the support of the privacy watchdog. Wisely, it put the proposal on hold amid concerns that such a provision may have compromised press freedom and legitimate business activities. Journalists voiced fears that it might hinder them in investigating malpractice. Unionists and professionals feared it might stop workers recovering unpaid wages and prevent businesses including banks verifying a client's status.

Society must be vigilant against privacy inhibiting access to information without compelling reasons for restricting a free flow. The watchdog, government, lawmakers and activists on both sides of the argument should focus on striking a balance that serves the wider public interest. Once curbed, the free flow of information will be more difficult to restore than to maintain.