At a Data Protection event I attended yesterday, the Chair, Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan referred to her husband’s interest in genealogy and to his concerns regarding an article in the Irish Times on the the subject. I pulled out my smartphone, and a quick read of the article gave me reason for concern too, though not the same reason as Hugh Geoghegan.
The article commences thus:
Access to old parish records on microfilm in the National Library and to records held by the State such as birth, death and marriage certificates could be restricted if a proposed European Union regulation on data protection goes ahead, the Genealogical Society of Ireland has said.
This statement is simply incorrect. Personal data, as protected by the Data Protection Acts, relates only to living persons. Old records are therefore not affected by Data Protection. Further, new records can continue to be created and kept, because processing of data is exempt from the Data Protection Acts where it is required by law, such as, for example, The Civil Registration Act.
The proposed new regulation retains the current definition of personal data, provides for “historical, statistical or scientific” uses of personal data, and explicitly acknowledges “the principle of public access to official documents”. The proposed regulation has its problems (to be frank, it’s a disgrace), but excessive restriction on access is not one of them. The short article contains more assertions regarding what the regulation might do. Rather than go through them point by point, I will simply say that literally none of them have any basis in either current or proposed law. The Genealogical Society’s worries are simply not founded in fact.
But people are frequently wrong about things, and genealogists are not expected to be intimately familiar with the working of the EU legislature. More worrying is that the Irish Times decided to print a story which was in its every detail, inaccurate. The proposed Directive has been published. We do not need to speculate about what it could or might do. Journalists have access to Google, one presumes. They also have access to experts who are more than willing to give them a perspective on a planned story free of charge. This is not the first time the Times has printed groundless (and sometimes agenda-driven) speculation about this proposed regulation, unchallenged by any reference to easily ascertainable facts. When an actual human right is at issue, you’d hope that the paper of record would care to know what it was talking about.