Hong Kong commerce minister Greg So hits out at Privacy Commission report on cold calling

Commerce minister tells privacy commissioner it should have consulted bureau before releasing report, and questions credibility of the study

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 4:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 7:42am

The privacy commissioner and the commerce minister are at loggerheads after the minister questioned the credibility of a study by the watchdog on cold-call marketing.

Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang said yesterday he had received a letter from Greg So Kam-leung "expressing disappointment" over the report and complaining his Commerce and Economic Development Bureau had not been consulted before it was released. The report by the publicly funded watchdog, issued this month, found nine out of 10 Hongkongers were inconvenienced by person-to-person calls and suggested a "don't call" register similar to one set up for pre-recorded calls.

Chiang said on his blog yesterday that the letter "intemperately" questioned the report's figures and cast doubt on the validity and reliability of the results.

He said the bureau claimed the commissioner, in providing an advance copy just a day before publication, kept it "in the dark", deprived it of a "fair hearing" and presented a "one-sided picture" to the public.

"The 2014 survey results are valid and reliable and we have been perfectly honest in our reporting," Chiang wrote.

"It is not entirely clear why the [Commerce and Economic Development Bureau] grilled the figures intemperately."

The bureau responded that Chiang had failed to address clearly all its doubts about the survey, including the method of its analysis.

"The issue is complex, and the bureau believed it was an important stakeholder in the matter," a spokesman said. "We felt the commissioner, before announcing its findings, should have communicated with us … to have a better grasp [of the issue]."

Hours after the report was released this month, So said the bureau held an "open attitude" to the recommendations but had to take into account the 20,000 people who worked in telemarketing.

In the letter, he said a do-not-call register was no "panacea".

Chiang said the bureau "did not feel obliged to take forward the proposal". He defended the study and said the bureau's comments in the letter had taken him by surprise.

He reiterated that the watchdog, though mostly publicly funded, operated independently and did not have an obligation to consult the government first.

"I do not see there is an issue of a 'fair hearing'," he said.

"I see nothing inappropriate for us to restrict our role to just setting the scene to facilitate an open and transparent public discussion."

The bureau rejected Chiang's suggestion that it did not feel obliged to follow up on the recommendations.

"From a policy perspective, [the bureau's] open attitude to strengthening regulation of P2P [person-to-person] marketing calls has not changed," it said.

The bureau said the commissioner could instead consider reviewing the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and its enforcement power to respond to problems of personal data involved in direct marketing calls.

But Chiang said: "The problem of P2P calls is due more to cold calls not involving use of personal data … This goes beyond the ambit [of the privacy ordinance]."

He said amending the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance, which covers only faxes, short messages and pre-recorded telephone messages, to include person-to-person calls would be the best way forward.

Lawmaker James To Kun-sun agreed the government should address public dissatisfaction and create a register for P2P calls to protect people from the growing nuisance.