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Privacy Perspectives | Croatian DPA shutters website: Protection of personal data or violation of freedom of speech? Related reading: Croatian GDPR implementation law — main features and unanswered questions


Recently, Croatia’s data protection authority, Personal Data Protection Agency, shut down the website called “rate me” (in Cro: “ocijeni me”), intended for citizens to evaluate public servants employed in 21 city administrations throughout the country. The website, established in 2018 by one association from the city of Dubrovnik, was represented by an attorney who obtained the data about city administration servants based on the constitutional right to access information.

Namely, the Croatian public administration system is bureaucratic, and citizens are generally dissatisfied with their experiences. It is precisely why the website was established, giving citizens the opportunity to leave grades and comments on the work of city administration servants. The aim was to provide a better service to citizens through a public sector evaluation system — at least until AZOP shut the website down.

Although the official decision is still not available on AZOP’s website, an attorney who represented the association behind the website shared AZOP’s decision with the public. What is particularly interesting is that AZOP, when explaining the grounds for turning the website down, does not problematize the question of personal data, i.e., the fact that names and surnames of city administrations were published. It is indisputable that citizens can access data on city administrators and that this data is intended to be and, in most cases, indeed is publicly available. Rather, AZOP argues the possibility of evaluating and leaving comments on city administrators on the website is what presents the violation of personal data protection. AZOP has not yet provided the rationale behind its decision, except that any data processing must have a legal basis, and evaluating and leaving comments on city administrators on the website does not meet that requirement.

The public disagrees with AZOP's decision. While one group condemns the decision on the ground of violating the citizens’ freedom of speech, another group claims any type of evaluation system should have a legal basis in accordance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation and adequate protection of the personal data of the persons whose activity is being evaluated. Although the latter is, generally speaking, true, perhaps this is more a question of citizens’ freedom of speech, best defined as a right of an individual to express their own views and thoughts without fear that someone will try to prevent or punish him or her.

One can also reasonably claim that a strong public interest exists in this matter. However, supporters of the decision further claim that fulfilling any real objective, such as providing a better service to citizens, must be without any risks related to manipulating content, i.e., the comment section, and that their application must be legal. Calling on manipulations is quite interesting, as the majority of decision’s opponents confidently argue the decision is highly politicized, targeting AZOP’s principal had not been greatly reputable.

It seems that this is also a part of the Croatian agenda directed toward the online portals and media this year, not necessarily established on the same grounds. In November 2020, the Croatian Parliament announced amendments to the Act on Electronic Media, which is currently in the process of adoption. The act is quite controversial and has been publicly called the “Censorship Act.” This is due to its broad and very strict provisions on the liability of online media for comments left under articles published on their online profiles. Namely, pursuant to the proposed amendments, the electronic publication provider will be responsible for the whole content published on their websites and in their electronic publications, including the content generated by users, such as comments. These amendments are highly criticized as, although the responsibility of editors for publishing content that incites hate speech has previously existed, the responsibility is significantly broadened.

It is yet to be seen if AZOP's decision will be challenged before the Croatian courts on the ground of violating the freedom of speech. Certainly, good arguments exist in this matter, and AZOP’s decision and (possible) judicial review thereof might set an important precedent for distinguishing between the protection of personal data and the freedom of speech. Likewise, it will be interesting to follow the fate of the proposed new Act on Electronic Media, as there is always a possibility for challenging the act before the Croatian Constitutional Court.

Photo by Jonathan Smith on Unsplash

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