Privacy watchdog defends tighter rules

Updated: 2013-01-16 07:03

By Kahon Chan(HK Edition)

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Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang has defended his position calling for tighter restrictions on information contained in the company registry, saying current freedoms amount to an infringement on personal privacy.

But Chiang also suggested that existing legislation has demonstrated that the right to privacy might give way to other concerns in the public interest such as news activities.

At the present time, the public has unrestricted access to the company registry, containing home addresses and identification card numbers of board members - revealed in full.

The privacy commissioner for personal data has received two complaints since 2011 regarding the company registry. One complainant withdrew his case later. Another case was dismissed on grounds it lacked prima facie evidence.

Following an amendment to the Companies Ordinance passed by the Legislative Council (LegCo) last July, complete freedom of access will be blocked once the amended law is enacted. Journalists and trade unionists, who have depended on the registry to track down subjects of enquiries and runaway bosses, began protesting the changes a week ago.

Amid an outcry of opposition, the privacy commissioner for personal data released a statement on late Monday supporting tighter control on access to personal data of companies' directors.

Chiang said it was unsatisfactory that company directors' privacy should be exposed to uncontrolled intrusion. He said the lack of complaints could not be seen as an indicator of the severity of the problem, since most people do not know when and how the leaks happen.

At the press briefing on Tuesday, however, Chiang acknowledged the right to privacy is "not absolute" and concessions for news activities amount to no breakthrough in existing laws.

Section 61 of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, for instance, exempts "news activity" from certain data protection standards and specific provisions in the ordinance. By contrast, the Companies Ordinance does not specify any "types of person" as having the right of access.

"We think the same approach can be applied to other legislation," said Chiang. "If it is a matter of public interest, I don't see any reason not to grant (news activities) the exemption."

The LegCo is deliberating subsidiary legislation to specify the "types of persons" that can be granted access to information normally withheld from the public. Public officers and liquidators were named in the LegCo document.

Wong Kwok-kin of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions admitted that it was an "oversight" on the part of lawmakers to approve the Companies Bill amendment last July, saying he found the old system has worked well. For now, he said he hopes the government will propose an expansion of the list to avoid further controversy.

While it will be easier to add unions to the list of exempted entities, Senior Counsel and legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah said the chief challenge will be extending the right to freelance writers and bloggers.

(HK Edition 01/16/2013 page1)