Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Holocaust reference in EU data bill relieves researchers

  • The Holocaust memorial in Berlin (Photo: Paul Weber)

Fears that historians would somehow be denied access to public records when researching the Holocaust because of new data privacy rules have now been resolved.

An agreement last week was reached between the EU institutions on a far-reaching regulation that promises a new set of data protection rules to help businesses thrive in a digital single market while ensuring people's right to privacy.

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But the new regulation, to be transposed into national law in the first half of 2018, also set standards for granting researchers access to public and private records.

A spokesperson at the US-based World Jewish Restitution Organization told this website in an email that researchers were experiencing problems accessing historical Holocaust-related materials from certain archives because of legal concerns on the part of archivists around the issue of data protection.

"This issue had to be solved at EU level rather than at national level because researchers did not face problems to access Holocaust related documents prior to the General Data Protection Regulation," said the spokesperson.

Such privacy rules do not apply to the deceased, but problems may arise when researchers are unable to provide a date of death or a certificate.

"If there is no date of death, EU countries generally insist on a period of time that is calculated from the individual's birth. This period of time in EU countries tends to be 100 years or more, which means that records concerning persons born in 1915 or later may not be accessible if only their date or year of birth is known," he said.

Other issues may also arise when it comes to tracking down plunder of property and related provenance research.

Regulators behind the new bill have since inserted the word "Holocaust" in a recital on processing personal data for archiving purposes to dispel any ambiguity.

Robert Williams of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said the specific reference prevents the new bill from becoming an excuse to restrict access.

The recital already makes broad references to genocide and crimes against humanity.

It makes no specific reference to other atrocities, like the Armenian genocide in 1915 or the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

Instead, it notes member states should be authorised to provide personal data to researchers when there is a general public interest value "for example with a view to providing specific information related to the political behaviour under former totalitarian state regimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, in particular the Holocaust, or war crimes."

German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who steered the bill through the European Parliament, said the Holocaust inclusion was a helpful but needless clarification.

"I don't think that this clarification is and was necessary, but it is a helpful one," he said.

He noted that the recital was needed to help explain the concept of historical research.

Meanwhile, regulators are hoping the broader bill will instil a sense of trust in people when companies process their personal data.

The idea is that people will have more confidence, for example, when making online purchases.

People will now have to be informed when their personal data is processed. Consent will have to be clear and affirmative for companies to proceed.

The European Commission views consent as the backbone of the regulation. EU commissioner for justice Vera Jourova said it was the most important element in the bill.

"We must do our best so that the data subject does not change into a data object, so people must be very well informed before the data is processed," she noted.

The new rules could see companies fined up to four percent of their global annual turnover.

Last week, 27 of the member states endorsed the regulation and one abstained.

"Interesting enough, the country that abstained on the regulation, was arguing that the text was too data industry friendly," said Luxembourg's justice minister Felix Braz.

According to one EU source, Austria has abstained.

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