How much privacy should be afforded someone who becomes a director of a listed company that raises money from the public and financial institutions, and how much transparency is in the public interest? The question has been raised by the government, which proposes amending the Companies Ordinance to allow directors and secretaries to hide their home addresses and part of their Hong Kong identity numbers in the Companies Registry.
Without the subject's consent, the media and the public are to be excluded from the select, privileged few who can view personal details disclosed until now. The Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies lobbied for the changes. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data supports them because it says uncontrolled access might cause harm, although in 2011 and last year it received only two complaints, neither of which was sustained. The Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hong Kong Association of Banks opposes them. So do some barristers and lawmakers.
Top officials have repeatedly emphasised the importance of the free flow of information to Hong Kong's way of life and its standing as a finance centre. They are right. Only last month, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying affirmed the value of a free media in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
Journalists have an interest because the media is the principal marketplace for the free flow of information. Banks and bankers have an interest because performance of their duty of due diligence in lending to individuals and commercial entities depends on a free flow of information.
The Financial Services and Treasury Bureau say the changes would not hurt the city's reputation as a safe and reliable place to do business. Journalists differ, citing reliance on information from the registry for investigative news reports of valid public interest and demonstrable benefit to it. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which monitors banks' financial health, is consulting them about their concerns. Any opposition from that quarter should be taken seriously.
Lawmakers have yet to approve details of the amendments. To be sure, the free flow of information must be balanced with the right to privacy. But we trust they will bear in mind that it has been instrumental in Hong Kong's emergence as a world-class place to do business with the rule of law. Once curbed, it will be more difficult to restore than it is to uphold now.