Earlier this week, I noted a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that concerned workplace privacy. Apparently, the UK media’s coverage of that ruling has been variously dramatic or inaccurate. So much so, it seems, that Andrew Cutting, Council of Europe spokesperson/media officer issued a statement about media misrepresentation of the ruling:
Certain parts of the UK media sometimes have trouble getting their facts right when covering “Europe”. It’s understandable, to a certain extent. Europe’s institutions are complicated, journalists cover lots of different issues and they work to tight deadlines.
Nonetheless, this week’s reporting of a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on monitoring personal communications at work has set something of a new benchmark.
Numerous outlets – primarily, but not exclusively, from the UK – have portrayed Tuesday’s judgment as giving bosses across the continent a new “right” to snoop on all of their staff’s personal messages sent using Facebook, Twitter, What’sApp, Gmail or any other platform.
It sounds scary, and it makes a good story, but it’s not true.
First, the ECHR does not just invent new rights which instantly apply across the continent. It looks at complaints – usually brought by individuals, against their governments – on a case-by-case basis and decides if there has been a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As explained in the ECHR press release, this particular case was brought by a Romanian man – Bogdan Bărbulescu – from Bucharest.
Bogdan worked in sales for a firm which strictly banned using company computers for personal reasons.
He was asked by his bosses to set up a Yahoo Messenger account to deal with enquiries from clients.
When challenged by his employers, Bogdan said that he only used the service for professional reasons.
His bosses then showed him a 45-page transcript of his communications, which included a number of private messages to his brother and fiancée. Bogdan was then fired for breaking company rules.
After taking his case all the way through the Romanian court system, Bogdan turned to the ECHR in Strasbourg claiming that Romania had violated his human rights.
The ECHR agreed that the case did raise certain legal questions under the human rights convention concerning the right to privacy and correspondence.
However, it also agreed with the Romanian courts that it was reasonable, in the context of disciplinary proceedings, for a company to check that employees were actually working during work hours and that computer equipment was not being used against the rules.
Read more of his statement on Huffington Post UK.