Could new European digital privacy laws hurt Holocaust research?

The EU’s preliminary General Data Protection Regulation is part of a comprehensive push for privacy protection in the digital age.

Computer keyboard [illustrative]. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Computer keyboard [illustrative].
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
European draft legislation aimed at protecting citizens’ private data in the digital age may pose a threat to Holocaust research, an international body tasked with promoting remembrance asserted on Tuesday.
The EU’s preliminary General Data Protection Regulation, which is expected to pass into law this year, is part of a comprehensive European push for privacy protection that has included initiatives such an online “right to be forgotten” and efforts to keep the digital lives of Europeans on local servers.
While such efforts would not seem to bear any relevance to Holocaust studies, which generally involves searching through yellowing paper documents in old-fashioned archives, the GDPR has, in fact, begun negatively impacting researchers, according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
In a statement on Tuesday, the 31-country association asserted that even before securing passage, the legislation has begun hurting scholars’ access to archives across the continent, as archivists hedge their bets to keep from falling afoul of the soon to be implemented rules.
“The regulation that is currently making way through the EU parliament has a number of provisions that frighten scholars across Europe,” said Dr.
Robert Williams, head of IHRA’s Committee on Archival Access and a researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Because the legislation does not stipulate how long after a person’s death his or her private information can be revealed or when access to such information can be granted, some archivists “have begun reading into what they understand the law will be” and are “barring access to materials, including materials [related to] the history of the Holocaust.”
“It has started to hamper cooperation between certain institutions,” he said.
After a year of study of the issue, Williams’s committee issued a report asserting that while the law did allow access to archived information for historical study, it was unnecessarily vague and that the “use of imprecise language... could lead to a decline in scholarship, education, and public awareness of the Holocaust, effectively erasing public memory of this seminal event in world history and threatening public memory of other major human rights atrocities in Europe.”
“The reports we received suggest that, by and large, individuals are being told by archivists that records are protected by data privacy,” including material, such as lists of victims and perpetrators, said Williams.
While larger archives have thus far not closed off access, smaller archives have become much more conservative in their approach, he continued.
“The regulation is a bit of a sledgehammer for dealing with the significant issue of data privacy.”
The IHRA’s objections also stem from the fact that its member states, which include the United States, Hungary, Austria, Israel and others, are all signatories to the Stockholm Forum on the Holocaust, a treaty which requires all parties to “take all necessary steps to facilitate the opening of archives in order to ensure that all documents bearing on the Holocaust are available to researchers.”
Should the European legislation pass, the IHRA’s members belonging to the EU would be bound by conflicting obligations,” according to Williams.
As a result, the organization is requesting that European lawmakers amend the law to stipulate that nothing in it “affects the full and open access to documents bearing on the Holocaust.”
“Holocaust research actively contributes to the fight against anti-Semitism today. Attempts to distort or deny the Holocaust are generally motivated by anti-Semitism, and are in themselves a form of anti-Semitism,” said IHRA rotating chairman Szabolcs Takács.
“Threating or impeding Holocaust research in any way plays into the hands of those who deny the Holocaust. Archives have a fundamental role to play in preserving historical truth, and this is why it is so important to IHRA that an amendment is made to the GDPR. IHRA member countries – 24 of which are EU member countries – are obligated, by the commitments set out in the Stockholm Declaration, to ensure access to all documents bearing on the Holocaust.”
Commenting on the IHRA’s initiative, Vilnius-based Prof. Dovid Katz, editor of the web-journal, told The Jerusalem Post it was indicative of the “splendid work” the organization was doing, but cautioned against the distortion of Holocaust memory among some of its Eastern European members.
Citing support for the “double genocide” theory equating Nazi and Soviet crimes in countries such as Hungary and Lithuania, Katz insisted that the IHRA “ensure that Holocaust education does not in itself become a perverse tool of the revisionists.”
“Under no circumstances must the legitimate efforts to counter today’s Putinist threats from Russia be mixed with the East European ultra-nationalists’ (and sadly many regional governments’) attempts to obfuscate the Holocaust,” he told the Post.