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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Privacy laws 'hamper e-government'
Man on keyboard
Legislation needs to catch up with internet age
UK data protection laws are hindering the progress of online government projects, a study has found.

Many public sector organisations are finding it hard to juggle twin demands from existing laws and targets for online services, said a survey by a newsletter which specialises in electronic government.

Around a third of public sector bodies said that the Data Protection Act was preventing them moving services online and offering what is called joined-up government.

Joined-up government, often regarded as one of the goals for putting services online, requires departments to share data and information on citizens, which is explicitly prevented by data protection laws.

Information technology directors in local councils around the country have called on the government to review and overhaul the legislation in order to allow local governments to hit their targets for getting services online.

"One of the problems is that the laws have grown up over centuries but the internet develops month by month," said Dan Jellinek, editor of the E-Government Bulletin, the newsletter which commissioned the survey.

"This body of law hasn't caught up fast enough," he added.

The survey, which questioned technology managers in both central government and local councils, also found that many departments were finding it was impossible to juggle various pieces of legislation without them conflicting with each other.

Inalienable rights

They should join the 21st century and learn that these are inalienable rights, and should be respected as such,
Simon Davies, Privacy International
"Some of the information we are required to make available under the Freedom of Information Act would require the gathering of data which seems to contravene parts of the Data Protection Act," one respondent said.

Joined-up government has long been an ambition of Prime Minister Tony Blair. In conjunction with putting services online, it is seen as an opportunity to revamp and modernise the way citizens interact with government.

Privacy advocates are less keen on the idea of joined-up government and are concerned that e-government schemes will increase the amount of data shared between departments.

Simon Davies, head of lobby group Privacy International, has little sympathy for public organisations struggling under the weight of the government's own legislation.

It should be possible to provide services that will improve life for citizens,
Dan Jellinek, E-Government Bulletin
"The public service, like its private sector counterparts, has traditionally been anti-pathetic toward both data protection and freedom of information. They often instinctively blame the law in those areas for their own management shortcomings," he said.

"They should join the 21st century and learn that these are inalienable rights, and should be respected as such," he added.

Mr Jellinek argues that it is possible to find a balance between protecting data and making services available online.

"It doesn't mean changing the law to say that councils can do what they like with personal data," he said.

"But it should be possible to provide services that will improve life for citizens," he added.

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