The non-profit news portal, webb-site.com, run by former investment banker David Webb, covers corporate governance, regulatory, finance and investment issues in Hong Kong. It regularly includes reports based on public information provided by government bodies such as the Hong Kong courts and disciplinary action statements from the Securities and Futures Commission.
A dispute centers on three publicly-released reports -- judgments on matrimonial cases -- published on Webb’s news site in the early 2000s. The reports also linked to the original documents on the judiciary website.
More than a decade later, the parties mentioned in the reports claimed that revealing their names is a violation of personal privacy.
The copies of the reports on the judiciary website were then edited to anonymise the names, and the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data ordered Webb to do the same to the three reports in his site's archives.
The allegation, which Webb denies, is that by maintaining the unredacted reports in the archive, he violated a data protection principle by “using personal data for a purpose other than the purpose for which the data was to be used at the time of the collection of the data”.
Webb pointed out that the original judgments were not anonymised and were in the public domain.
“It surely is not illegal for you or me to tell someone else something we have learned from the public domain,” he said during his appeal to the Administrative Appeals Board (AAB) last month.
He argued that not only is it impractical to issue an order that permits selective editing of media archives, but Hong Kong’s data protection law “was intended to keep private data private, not to make public data private”.
The larger issue
The core of the case has some similarity to the practice of retouching historical photographs to remove people who have become politically undesirable.
Webb pointed out that if tweaking the public record is permitted, the practice becomes wide open to abuse.
“If people can sanitise their past by requiring Hong Kong media to suppress their archives, and then run for public office, the information `haves’ will be in a position of power against the `have-nots’. We will be creating Orwellian memory holes in society, and even worse, entire media archives may become inaccessible to the public.”
Webb’s case has high significance because it comes at a time when press freedom in Hong Kong is under threat. Last year was “the darkest for press freedom for several decades, with the media coming under relentless assault from several directions”, according to the recently published annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
The HKJA cited physical attacks on journalists as well as the firing of key editorial figures, particularly in relation to pro-democracy reporting.
However, the organisation also said senior management is pressuring journalists to self-censor articles on a variety of topics. The report cited, for example, pressure to soften an article on Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and an unusual trimming of a journalist’s article on potential government corruption.
In Webb’s case, the next step it to wait. He said the AAB normally takes several weeks or months to deliver its decision.