My Take

Time for Hong Kong's privacy commissioner to go

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 1:35am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 1:35am

The right to privacy is a basis of civil liberty. So having privacy laws and a commission to enforce them may seem like a progressive development. But the way Hong Kong's privacy watchdog has been operating, it is ineffectual at best, and counterproductive and harmful at worst. Given the large public budget the office commands, it is also terribly wasteful.

Last year, commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang was all fired up and called for stricter controls on unsolicited or cold-call marketing phone calls. That's something that affects nine out of 10 Hong Kong people, according to a joint survey by the Consumer Council and the privacy commission; and it's something about which the commission could do some good. Now, all is forgotten and we are still getting those harassing calls at all hours of the day.

Meanwhile, busybody Chiang has taken to advocating the disastrous "right to be forgotten" law of the European Union in the typically me-too mentality of the Hong Kong bureaucrats - he was for a long time postmaster general after all.

In that spirit, he has been harassing people and websites that provide a genuine public service.

His office, for example, is now fighting corporate governance advocate David Webb at the Administrative Appeals Board after Webb refused an order to redact the names of people who appeared in reports on three court judgments handed down between 2000 and 2002.

Webb has rightly argued that publishing judgments is a judicial function, so personal data that appear in judgments should be exempt from data protection principles. It's Chiang's job to "keep private data private", Webb pointed out, but "not to make public data private".

This is basically Chiang's dangerous flaw. He seems to think public information, when made available via technology such as the internet or mobile phone apps, becomes suspect.

So in 2013, his office ordered the operator of mobile app Do No Evil to cease supplying "sensitive" data after it was found to have "invaded" personal data privacy by allowing users to search for individuals by name. But all the data on individuals were gleaned from publicly available litigation and bankruptcy records, and could be searched from public offices.

It's time to replace Chiang and overhaul his commission.