On Tuesday last week, the European Court of Justice issued a judgement in a dispute over personal data protection on the Internet, regarding whether individuals can demand that search engine operators respect their “right to be forgotten.” The court ruled that if people use a search engine to look for the name of a certain data subject (such as a person), and the results include Web pages containing information regarding that subject, then the data subject can demand that the search engine operators remove those search results.
This judgement applies to all EU member states. Forgetting for a moment the question of how many arguments about Internet censorship it is likely to provoke, it will at least do something to promote the inclusion of the “right to be forgotten” in the European directive on personal data protection, which is currently under consideration.
Naturally, the judgement will also have an effect on US-based Internet companies such as Google and Facebook, as well as people like you and me, for whom these global companies have long since become an unavoidable part of our daily lives. Even more pertinent is the question of how this judgement will affect the direction of global privacy protection standards.
Ironically, the day after the European Court of Justice issued its judgement, the Taipei High Administrative Court rejected a civil personal information protection lawsuit, a result that goes in completely the opposite direction from the European court.
For many years, the Department of Health — now the Ministry of Health and Welfare — has been handing national health insurance data over to the center for cooperation on added-value application of health information, and to the National Health Insurance Research Database, in contravention of the terms of the National Health Insurance Act (全民健保法) that limit the use of such data to purposes directly related to the operation of the health insurance program.
This allows information recognized internationally as being sensitive personal data to be sold to pharmaceutical firms and research institutes. Although the ministry and the National Health Insurance Administration insist all the information is de-identified before being handed over, only names and ID numbers are concealed, not data such as dates of birth, insuring institutions and medication used. These details may make it possible to link the information to specific individuals.
Regardless, the Taipei High Administrative Court has rejected people’s right not to allow information about themselves in the National Health Insurance database to be used for purposes other than that which was originally intended. The court’s ruling ignores constitutional rights of information privacy and self-control of personal information.
Further, the Legislative Yuan recently approved an amendment the Ministry of Justice proposed to the Personal Information Protection Act (個人資料保護法), by greatly relaxing Article 6, regarding the standards for sensitive personal information.
Those responsible for proposing this amendment claim they are doing so out of concern for commercial use and added value, but this nullifies the protective effect of the Personal Information Protection Act.
This is a barefaced attempt by the executive, legislative and judicial branches to attack people’s privacy and control over their own personal information.
As well as running entirely contrary to Council of Grand Justices’ Constitutional Interpretation No. 603, it disregards information privacy, an issue to which the international community is attaching increasing importance.
If the authorities do not even allow a data subject to call for the removal of their personal information from where it is used unlawfully, how can they claim Taiwan’s personal information protection system conforms to international standards?
Given the major backward steps being taken, it would be more accurate to say the rights of 99 percent of the population are being sacrificed to conform with commercial interests and the ruling elite who own, control and enjoy almost everything despite representing perhaps just 1 percent of the population.
If the Cabinet’s repeated claims to be preventing infringements of human rights and increasing citizens’ participation in public policy through the Internet are compared with the indiscriminate recourse Taiwan’s jittery prosecutors and police are taking to the Criminal Code in handling all kinds of online anti-government comments, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
When prosecutors continue to investigate online commentators, is that not an infringement of the commentators’ human rights?
If the Cabinet retains the slightest commitment to preventing infringements of human rights, it should start by curbing the police’s abuses of authority. If not, it will have a tough job explaining how the imposition of “Internet martial law” can possibly be a means of preventing infringements of human rights.
Evidently, the government’s purpose in using martial-law-style methods like this is to scare people into self-censorship.
When Internet users are so lacking in free access to information and free expression, how is that supposed to encourage citizens’ use of the Internet to participate in public policy?
It looks as though the government is attempting to establish a “harmonious” kind of public participation in which only the authorities have any real say.
When people feel frustrated with the government, it is usually not just because the government fails to provide young people with food and clothing. Rather, the key factor is that it has caused young people’s vision of their future and of democracy to break down, so they feel desperate and angry about the government’s abandonment of citizens’ basic rights.
The government may be trying to abandon our rights, but we must never forget them.
Liu Ching-yi is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Social Sciences.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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