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Court orders removal of public procurement data

ONLY days after a Slovak website that focuses on government accountability won a European award, a court in Bratislava has ordered it to remove information about companies that have benefited from state orders. The non-governmental organisation Fair-Play Alliance, which operates the znasichdani.sk site, called the court decision an inappropriate and scandalous interference in freedom of speech, and pointed out that the site merely collates data which is publicly available elsewhere.

ONLY days after a Slovak website that focuses on government accountability won a European award, a court in Bratislava has ordered it to remove information about companies that have benefited from state orders. The non-governmental organisation Fair-Play Alliance, which operates the znasichdani.sk site, called the court decision an inappropriate and scandalous interference in freedom of speech, and pointed out that the site merely collates data which is publicly available elsewhere.

The removal of the data was demanded by Jarmila Považanová, the statutory representative of the Strabag construction company. The Bratislava II District Court ruled that the website must remove all data that discloses the total value of all public procurement orders placed with companies that Považanová represents or has represented in the past. The preliminary ruling carried no explanation.

Znasichdani.sk (‘z našich daní’ is Slovak for ‘from our taxes’) contains a register of people who are known to be behind companies that have benefited from state orders. The search engine works with the names of people: after searching for a particular person, it lists the companies their name is or has been connected to and the state orders they have won, plus the amount they have received from public funds.

The website is a result of an initiative by Fair-Play Alliance in cooperation with the Visual Business Register, an online tool that allows users to see relationships and details from Slovakia’s Business Register in context. The Visual Business Register provided technology to link people who own companies, and cooperated in developing the project concept.

Zuzana Wienk, the director of Fair-Play Alliance, called the court’s decision unconstitutional and a limit on a site operator’s right to spread information which is already available from publicly accessible sources, according to the SITA newswire.

The NGO has appealed the ruling.

“The alliance has done nothing else but make possible simultaneous searches in two publicly accessible databases,” lawyer Vladimír Šárnik, who wrote the appeal for the alliance, told the Sme daily.

Šárnik also said that the preliminary decision of the court contains both formal and factual mistakes.

The court issued its decision even before the plaintiff had actually lodged her complaint, since the Slovak legal system makes it possible to submit a request for a preliminary decision even before submission of an actual complaint. Wienk told SITA that this could lead to a paradoxical situation in which the preliminary decision remains in place for an indefinite period without the formal complaint being submitted.

Individual data items are still available on the website, which means that visitors can still do their own sums and arrive at the total number.

“It's the only possible modification that we were able to make,” said Michal Habala, one of the programmers working on the project, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “We can’t erase the name and numbers included in the Business Register.”

Fair-Play Alliance launched the website in March this year with Wienk saying: “we believe this service will help journalists and NGOs to control [those in] power, and thanks to its simplicity it may also raise interest among the wider public”.

In March, Wienk argued that there are individual people – and their business culture – behind every company.

“We often hear speculation about their better-than-average relations with politicians,” Wienk said. “This service turns speculation and fairytales into hard facts.”

Back in March Fair-Play Alliance cited the example of businessman Juraj Široký, two of whose companies, Chemolak and Váhostav, received €170 million in state orders between 2005 and 2011, according to data on Znasichdani.sk.

On June 17, the Znasichdani.sk was awarded first prize at a European competition, Open Data Challenge, which is sponsored by the prestigious Open Knowledge Foundation. The competition was also backed by the European Commission and the awards were presented by EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes. The first prize should attract support for the project from among the international data community, SITA reported.

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