Compared with their colleagues in many other countries, the Taiwanese media stand out as aggressive purveyors of gossip. The remedy to such a culture, however, is not the updated Personal Data Protection Act (個人資料保護法). That law represents a setback for democracy.
By Michael Danielsen & Gunter Whittome.
Published in Taipei Times on Friday, May 7. 2010.
Compared with their colleagues in many other countries, the Taiwanese media stand out as aggressive purveyors of gossip.
The remedy to such a culture, however, is not the updated Personal Data Protection Act (個人資料保護法). That law represents a setback for democracy.
It is highly regrettable that both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) support the act, which contains such vague phrases as acting in the “public interest” and the use of “generally accessible data.” This leaves far too much room for interpretation and history is full of examples of how such ill-defined language can be used to undermine democracy and free speech. China is probably suitably inspired.
That politicians have asked academics to define “public interest” and “generally accessible data” helps in no way. Such definitions are unlikely to be any more farsighted than the academics providing them. There is also no guarantee that academics will be able to agree any more than politicians on a single definition. Ultimately, it will fall to the courts to decide.
Tragically, the act’s passage through the legislature was met by inept politicians sleeping on the job. A previous draft was watered down to such an extent that the media are now exempt from a requirement to inform and obtain consent from individuals before publishing their personal data, even when gathered through public and social activities.
The media are now allowed to search and collect “generally accessible data” about individuals when acting in the “public interest.” The uncertainty surrounding these terms also has implications for bloggers, non-governmental associations and individuals.
Publicly obtainable personal data may now be used, unless the person concerned has an overriding interest that enjoys higher protection than the freedom of expression. In such cases individuals can demand that related data are not published, leaving room for yet further interpretation.
In Germany, a clear distinction is made between safeguarding the data of ordinary citizens and “individuals of public interest.” People who are well known to the general public through the media must accept that they will be reported on extensively, including information regarding their private lives. Such individuals for the most part enjoy the spotlight. The general public has a right to be kept informed about their lives, with the proviso that reporting does not become harassment, as was the case with former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) daughter, who was followed every day for months in Taiwan and overseas. In the interest of maintaining a free press, such limits need to be defined very broadly.
Regulations preventing personal data from being “combined” might increase the protection afforded individuals by ensuring personal profiles do not end up in private databases. However, such information can still be used in the media, making this a highly dubious clause.
The lawmakers were probably well intentioned, but the solution they have come up with is worse than the original problem. Those who believe they have been harassed or slandered already have legal recourse available to them, without this act.
Instead, a broader approach needs to be taken, beginning with the promotion of better journalism by a more professional media. This could include such things as a code of conduct, quality standards, the professional education of would-be journalists through internships and independent schools of journalism.
A similar law enacted in Europe or elsewhere in the Western world would have been met with outrage. Unfortunately, in Taiwan it is just one more piece of evidence that democracy is in retreat.
Michael Danielsen is the chairman of Taiwan Corner. Gunter Whittome is a writer living in Taipei.