In a community, rights of freedom of expression usually beat out privacy.  No-one in this village would be happy if members of the community were constrained from expressing their views on the qualities of the village shop or pub (and both are excellent, I hasten to add: go to and check them out).  But something odd happens on the Web, or at least to politicians and regulators when they forget that the network is an expression of community as well as a means of communication.  I believe that one day current high walls around personal data in the web will be lowered, that individuals will treat their identity as a tradeable commodity and extract what benefits they can from trading it, and much of the fear of the unknown which is implied in Europe especially by the great business of Data Protection will be jettisoned.

Within Europe, no country has organized the defence of personal data with more efficientcy than Germany. Yet it is there at the moment that we see a glimmer of light.  This month’s issue of SCL, the journal of the Society for Computers and Law contains a fascinating account by Andreas Ruhmkon of the case against the German ratings website  This site – in English “copy or crib from me ” – rates German schools and their teachers.  Users are registered, and can score the teachers in their schools on a scale of 1 to 6 (where one is high) across a range of criteria.  These include “cool and funny”, “popular”, “motivated”, “good teaching” and “fair marks”.  Students can only complete this evaluation for the schools for which they have registered, responses that include only top and bottom scores are omitted to avoid abuses, and students can include quotations from the teacher concerned to illustrate their scores.  The system has become very popular in Germany, and has been copied elsewhere.

Inevitably, a German teacher sought an injunction to remove her data.  She felt that categories like cool and funny, human and popular infringed her privacy, while her quotations were her own property, and the site could not designate her name, age, sex, qualifications or subject expertise without her permission, despite this information being available on the school web site. (She was, by the way, rated by her pupils as a 4.3)

While she was initially given an injunction by a district court, the case finally went to the Federal Court of Justice on appeal.  Here she lost the case, on the very fascinating grounds that freedom of expression outweighed the individual’s rights to privacy, given that here the question of privacy was decided in the social sphere, the teacher’s professional capacity, and not in regard to her personal life.  While it seems to me that social and private sometimes co-mingle in ways that are less easy to sort out than this one, we should all welcome the German court decision as a sensible blow for freedom.  And while doing so it is worth noting that European Human Rights legislation, mirrored in the German Constitution, generally overrides data protection legislation like the German BDSG.  The exception appears, once again, to be France: the service was ordered to remove the names of teachers because the service, according to Mr. Ruhmkon, would “endanger the functioning of the (French) educational system”.

In the UK, sites like and are already active.  Mr Ruhmkon reports libel actions against (physicians ratings) and has reportedly been closed by such threats.  And yet the German example does offer the hope that the existing social framework of freedom of expression will, in virtual as well as real society, rightly overcome unnecessary privacy rights claimed in the network which do not exist in the real world.


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