By Metamorphosis

After a six-year hiatus, leading Bulgarian digital rights organisations have revived their country’s version of the Big Brother Awards. Originated by EDRi member Privacy International in 1998, the concept of Big Brother Awards have been adopted by multiple civil society organisations in Europe and beyond. The event aims to increase awareness about the misuse of personal data and the harms that this can bring to individuals and society at large.

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On 3 February 2019, the 2018 Award winners were announced in a ceremony in Sofia: Bulgaria’s parliament and the well-known educational institute Center for Education and Qualification of Pedagogical Specialists Ltd.

With companies and private institutions collecting, storing and processing enormous amounts of personal data in the pursuit of more efficient marketing and greater social control, the event committee received many nominations. EDRi member Internet Society Bulgaria (ISOC-Bulgaria) solicited suggestions from the public. These were evaluated by a jury of renown public figures, including lawyers, academics, consultants, journalists, and civil right activists. The jury subsequently presented two Awards: one to the state institution and the other to the private organisation that had “excelled” at violating citizens’ privacy.

The competition was fierce, with government institutions like the National Security Agency, the State Prosecutors Office, and the Anti-Corruption Commission being nominated. Finally, the 2018 Big Brother Award for a state organisation went to the Bulgarian Parliament, for its adoption of a new personal data law. In addition to setting new standards for the protection of citizens’ data against misuse by companies and institutions, the law sets specific rules for journalists and their reporting, when it touches upon the lives and activities of individuals. The law sets limitations around the impact that disclosing data will have on the personal life of the subject, the circumstances in which personal data becomes known to a journalist, and the importance of the personal data or its public disclosure to the public interest. All of these stipulations, when subject to interpretation by media outlets and courts alike, could result in a threat to media freedom, especially when it comes to reporting on the activities of public officials.

“On their own, the criteria are okay. They indeed aid protection, and are in the direction of increasing sensitivity. The issue we have with them is that they can have side effects, and have an adverse effect on another human right — the right to free expression and media freedom. They can be used as rules for conducting the journalistic profession, which in practice can amount to actual censorship. Therefore, the award is not so much for the criteria, as it is for not taking into account the risk of turning them into a threat to media freedom,” explained jury member and media expert Georgi Lozanov.

Dimitar Ganchev, member of the ISOC-Bulgaria board, added that another reason for which the Parliament was granted the Award was that the vote on the law was taken without any debate and with very low attendance by lawmakers.

The private sector organisation that clenched the Big Brother Award is the Center for Education and Qualification of Pedagogical Specialists Ltd., thanks to a massive personal data leak that affected more than 9 000 students and more than 2 000 of their parents. Lists with their personal data were exposed to the public through various mechanisms, including posting the details on a major social network. Other nominees in the private sector category included Municipal Forestry from Elin Pelin, Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, and Trimoncium, a medical centre in Plovdiv.

None of the nominees responded to the invitation to attend the ceremony. However, the event enjoyed wide press coverage.

Bulgaria’s parliament and an educational institute named top privacy violators in “Big Brother Awards” (11.02.2019)
https://globalvoices.org/2019/02/11/bulgarias-parliament-and-an-educational-institute-named-top-privacy-violators-in-big-brother-awards/

Big Brother Awards Bulgaria
https://www.bigbrotherawards.bg/

ISOC-Bulgaria
http://www.isoc.bg/index_en.html

(Contribution by Filip Stojanovski, EDRi member Metamorphosis, Macedonia)

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