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Commercial Genealogy vs. Privacy - The French Perspective

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Different cultures have different ideas of privacy, and that applies to privacy, genealogy and the Internet, and to the area where all three intersect. In America, no one in genealogical circles seems at all concerned that heritage societies sell online the complete lineage of each member, including living individuals, even if the member protests, while in France there remains a concern, however token, about protecting the privacy of living individuals. How the latest developments will play out in practice is another story.

Currently, the news in French genealogy is the result of a meeting held on the 9th of December last at the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL) the motto of which reads in English as : "Information technology must respect human identity, human rights, privacy and freedom". The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the policy and directives on the publication, commercial or private, of images and information from the national and departmental archives, particularly for genealogy. This is an ongoing tussle which we discussed here last June and July.

The blog of the Fédération française de Généalogie (FFG) gives a summary of the decision and also gripes that the only representatives present were :

  • the president of the company Notre Famille, the owners of the website www.genealogie.com, which has been angling for some time to be allowed to index and show all the filmed records on their website.
  • one for the Archives nationales de France
  • one for the Departmental Archives
  • one for the General Assembly of Departments of France

There were no representatives for professional genealogists or for private users or family genealogists. Thus, there is a building resentment about the seeming collaboration between government and commerce to keep the citizen/punter out of the decision-making process, which does seem do be a bit forgetful of the "human" in the motto above.

Key points are:

  • It is permitted to use (the term is réutilisation and the implication is to publish on the internet) the images and personal data contained in the public archives for both private and commercial purposes;
  • The express permission of the person named in the data is not required for that use;
  • CNIL has the authority to allow or prohibit specific uses of the data and images;
  • The publication of certain information about people, whether living or dead, is forbidden. That information includes: racial or ethnic origins, political opinions, philosophies or religions, memberships to groups or associations, health, sexuality, crimes, convictions, imprisonments AND marginal notes on the civil registrations. As the FranceGenWeb blog points out, this makes it awkward for those researching Protestant and Jewish ancestors.
  • To use any document that reveals such information, the publisher must remove or block the name of the individual concerned.
  • The publisher, private or commercial,  must provide general (not individual) explanation of how they plan to use the data and images.
  • All living persons have the right to request the removal and blocking of information relating to them. The user has the right to ask for reasons for  a request to remove or block information concerning a dead person.
  • As concerns indexing of the data (the big money-maker in this game) the user or publisher must ensure that their search engine will exclude from the results all people born within the past 120 years. FranceGenWeb points out that this would make it no longer possible to search the records of those who served during World War I .
  • The user or publisher must inform all those who might access the data and images that he or she may not republish them and must protect their confidentiality.
  • Specific authorisation is required 1) to transfer the data out of the European Union to a country that does not adequately protect privacy, freedom and fundamental rights, or 2) to connect documents containing data produced by different government sections (e.g data from a Ministry for Health combined with data from that for Justice).

Many, especially Guillaume at FranceGenWeb, think this is a mess. La Revue française de généalogie, in an interview of Hervé Lemoine, director of the Service Interministériel des Archives de France (SIAF) by Guillaume de Morant emphasises the contradiction between the interpretations of the issues by CNIL and those by CADA, both organisations having authority of enforcement. Everyone wonders how the two rights: the right to access to information and the right to privacy, will be reconciled with any logical practical application. The Association of French Archivists with SIAF has organised a working group "Use of Public Data" and encourage involvement and public debate. They plan a conference day on the 11th of March, 2011. The European directive (last updated in 2003) on the subject is in the process of revision. When that is finalised, all member countries will have to revise their own policies to bring them into line with it.

Yet, the glory of the internet is that it crosses borders with fluidity. How will any plan be enforced internationally? Will genealogy multinationals experience in France episodes like Google's in China? We anticipate  fireworks at some point.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy