Laws are effective if they are backed by sanctions and a belief that they will be enforced against those who break them. If potential lawbreakers believe there is no danger of prosecution, they may feel they can act with impunity. That is what is in danger of happening with the refusal by the Department of Justice to prosecute Xinhua for breaching the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance. There does not seem to be any doubt Xinhua broke both the letter and the spirit of the law. The agency took 10 months to respond to a request by ousted legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing for access to her personal file, although the ordinance requires a reply within 40 days. Even then it simply denied holding any personal data on her. The department refuses to explain its decision, saying any elaboration would generate public debate and so be unfair to Xinhua. But this approach is likely to stir up public concern about the status of Xinhua in the SAR as people ask why the Government has chosen not to follow up on finding of the Privacy Commissioner, Stephen Lau Ka-men. In other cases, it has given reasons for similar rulings. The refusal to do so this time can only arouse fears that political considerations influenced the decision not to prosecute. According to the Privacy Commission, all eight breaches of the ordinance referred to the department have been rejected for prosecution. That raises doubts about the commitment to an ordinance which grants valuable rights to individuals to see and correct personal data. If the Government is now obliged by the precedent it has set to refrain from acting against others who do not comply, it will not be long before this law falls into disrepute for political reasons, raising questions about the sanctity of the rule of law in the SAR.