The Copyright Act (著作權法) and the Personal Information Protection Act (個資保護法) are laws relevant to people’s daily lives. However, a look at news reports in a Chinese-language newspaper would show that not only does the general public lack awareness of these laws, but even government departments are not too familiar with the laws and regulations.
One example is the EasyCard controversy that continues to rage. The Taipei City Government provided the city council with names of the councilors who wanted EasyCards bearing images of the Japanese adult video actress Yui Hatano. Although the list contained only the surnames of the councilors, the media and netizens were able to piece together the snippets of information to reveal the councilors who wanted the cards.
The objective of the Personal Information Protection Act is to guarantee citizens’ rights to privacy, leaving the decision to reveal what kind of information and the manner in which it would be revealed to the individual.
However, the councilors, by trying to get their hands on one of the EasyCards, exercised powers of their public office — the same public office that entails them to keep the public informed about what the government is doing.
According to democratic principles, the process should have been open and transparent to reduce the information gap between the public and the government. So how is it that it was kept confidential under the Personal Information Protection Act?
In June, the Guardian won a decade-long legal battle against the government over the right to publish private correspondence between Prince Charles and British government ministers.
The government initially made the letters from 2004 to 2005 available to the public, but following public pressure, it released the letters that Charles had sent between 2006 and 2009 to then-British prime minister Tony Blair and a number of Labour Party ministers. It was only then that the public found out that Prince Charles had been trying to influence ministers regarding government policy.
If the public has the right to know the contents of the letters written by Prince Charles — who does not actually have any political power — then there is no reason the information concerning the city councilors’ personal data, which, in this case, had the media ablaze for several weeks, should be kept from the public.
There is also the case of the female sexual harassment victim who published the e-mails she received from her alleged tormentor on the Internet, giving rise to a heated online debate. The man took her to court and the court ruled that she had violated the copyright law. Although many online commentators felt that the ruling was incorrect, according to the Copyright Act, the contents of the e-mails fall within the scope of the law. As a result, publishing such content online without prior consent of the author not only infringes that person’s right to public release, but it potentially infringes their right to reproduce copyrighted material as well.
In other words, the victim’s decision to publish the love letters coming from her troublesome classmate is consistent with criteria for copyright infringement.
However, there is another way that this case could have been resolved. From the reports, it seems that the victim acted in self-defense, or was venting her emotions, and had no intention of making any monetary gain. Neither did her actions affect the market value of the materials. As such, this should fall within the bounds of the “reasonable use” clause in Article 65 of the Copyright Act.
However, whether an action can be regarded as “reasonable use” is for the judge to decide. It is possible that, with the ruling, the judge wanted to send out a warning against online bullying and the culture of online trial by public opinion.
The seemingly inexhaustible fascination with online shaming and online trial by public opinion notwithstanding, there is a difference when councilors are sneaking around and covering up their personal information.
It reminds us of how online behavior often reflects social conventions: People can be harsh when treating individuals, but tolerant when it comes to the government, to the extent that they sometimes forget that there are laws.
Chiang Ya-chi is an assistant professor at National Taipei University of Technology.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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