The tightening of rules for the use of government databases has already restricted the public’s access to information. Last month, it was revealed new requirements would be imposed on those conducting searches on the Companies Registry and Land Registry. The move highlights potential legal risks faced by users and is likely to have an impact on the ability of the media to publish investigative reports. There is a need for greater clarity. Access to certain personal details of company directors and executives held at the Companies Registry was restricted in August. Their residential addresses and full identity numbers are now only available to “specified persons”. When the proposal was first unveiled in March the list of those to have access was very small. It was later extended to include accountants, lawyers, securities firms and others following a backlash from the business sector. Journalists are not included. The move prevents the media from accessing important information needed for reporting in the public interest. All users must state the purpose of their search. There are 11 options, which do not include journalism. Users must provide their personal details and, from the start of this month, are required to confirm they will only use the information they obtain for the stated purpose. Plan to restrict access to company registry data sets alarm bells ringing Similar changes are being made for use of the Land Registry. Users must state their purpose, confirm they will not use the information in a way that breaches privacy laws and are warned their personal details may be passed onto law enforcement agencies. There is a balance to be struck between access to information and protecting privacy. The government says the measures are needed to curb doxxing. But the latest moves increase concerns that apparently legitimate searches might be deemed to breach the law. In April, RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling was prosecuted and fined $6,000 after making a routine search on a Transport Department website. The government should make it clear that those involved in news activity in the public interest have the right to use the data they obtain from the websites as part of their work. Journalists, through their access to this information, have a vital role to play in enhancing the city’s transparency and accountability.