On Monday night, the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament passed one of the strongest data protection regulations in the world. The intent of the law is to strengthen personal privacy in the digital age. But journalists and newspaper publishers’ groups worry that it could hinder reporters from doing their jobs.

Members of the European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Union, believe the new regulations will protect its citizens from internet companies that gather personal data by making it illegal for them to use it without users’ knowledge.

Additionally, the regulations will bar companies from passing on the personal details of EU citizens to US intelligence organizations. That clause, removed at the draft stage following US pressure last year, is back in, after revelations this summer of widespread NSA data collection, including that of European citizens, angered most of the continent.

But media watchers say that the new law could affect how reporters do their jobs. Current EU-wide privacy rules from 1995 exempt journalists from many data protection laws, though each European Union member state interpreted the regulations differently.

The new version again leaves it up to each country’s decision on how they want to balance personal privacy with free expression. But possible interpretations could make it harder for journalists to research stories. The data protection law says that reporters—and everybody else—would have to prove to an administrator they have “legitimate interest” in obtaining materials, and that they would need consent from people mentioned in articles or photos before they could incorporate them into their work. It remains to be seen how different countries balance these conflicting rights, but journalists aren’t optimistic.

“We’ve always had water-tight exemption for journalists,” said Francine Cunningham, executive director of the European Newspaper Publishers Association.

Without an exemption, Cunningham said, journalists who wish to expose wrongdoing by a business leader, for example, in a story in which party affiliation is pertinent, could face fines because party affiliation is protected data. Or, they would have to get prior permission from the leader to include that information.

“It creates a grey area that could be utilized by someone to not allow a newspaper account,” said Sean Kelly, an Irish parliament member, in a telephone interview.

Moreover, depending on which country they live in, journalists could be forced to state where they got their information because the law leaves it up to each of the 28 member states to reconcile the rights.

“It is quite clear: There will be problems,” said Niko Härting, a Berlin-based lawyer who specializes in media issues and is a member of the information rights committee of the German bar association.

Härting tells the story of a member of a youth volleyball team who complained to data protection authorities in Germany, which has some of the strongest data privacy laws in Europe, because his photo appeared in a paper. The sportsman did not want his friends to know he played volleyball.

“That is not a freak occurrence. This is a normal thing here in Germany,” Härting said. “Do not underestimate the value of privacy to Europeans just as we will try not to underestimate the value of free speech to Americans.”

Importantly for many Europeans, the law also grants citizens the right to erase personal data from the Web. But that, too, could become a nightmare for news organizations. Imagine, Härting said, a convicted criminal who has been released from prison can ask that all references be erased from electronic news articles. Companies that break the rules can be fined up to 5 percent of their yearly revenues.

The bill now goes to member states to negotiate final wording. A vote is expected to take place in the spring.

 

 

Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.