1. Historically, confidentiality protection has been mainly a national issue. However, in the context of increasing data dissemination over the Internet, it is now also becoming an international issue. There is a great deal of international collaboration among members of the research community, and the researchers can be very critical towards different access rules in different countries. Furthermore, researchers are often not allowed to access other countries' microdata for fear that confidentiality protection cannot be guaranteed. Nevertheless, cross-country comparisons can be a very important part of a research project. This is not only of interest to academic researchers. International agencies are among those who want to use microdata for research purposes, particularly cross-country comparisons. Such studies are usually of great interest and relevance to the participating countries.
2. This raises the question of whether it is possible to internationally agree on some common principles for dissemination of microdata. This question should be seen in the context of the 2003 Conference of European Statisticians (CES) agreeing that support for research is an important activity of the National Statistical Offices (NSOs), and generally NSOs could do more to satisfy these needs. Doing more includes providing access to microdata which is the main focus of these principles and guidelines. (Although the reference is to NSOs in these guidelines, in many countries, particularly those with decentralised systems, there are several statistical producers. The reference to NSOs should be read as incorporating all producers of official statistics.)
3. There are two key objectives in these guidelines:
(i) to foster greater uniformity of approach by countries whilst facilitating better access to microdata by the research community for worthwhile purposes; and
(ii) through these guidelines and supporting case studies, to enable countries to improve their arrangements for providing access to microdata.
4. The term microdata is used throughout the paper. It can refer to data about an individual person, household, business or other entity. It may be data directly collected by the NSO or obtained from other sources, such as administrative sources.
5. These guidelines recognise that the precise arrangements for access to microdata will vary from country to country. They will depend on matters such as legislation, public attitudes and the capacity to support the research community. For example, the arrangements for a well-developed statistical office will be quite different from those in a less well-developed statistical office. Some countries may also feel they do not have either the systems or resources to maintain the necessary confidentiality safeguards. It should not be anticipated that each country will come up with precisely the same arrangements, although it is hoped these guidelines will lead to greater uniformity of approach.
6. We should also be mindful that not all countries are coming from the same position. Some countries, particularly from Eastern Europe, have traditionally not had strong legislation supporting confidentiality. This is being changed in many cases but the cultural change to support the legislative change can take longer.
7. A number of countries have existing legislation. Also the European Union (EU) has legislation on confidentiality that embodies several principles and rules. These will already be applied by many ECE countries, especially the EU countries. It is recognised that existing legislation is not easily changed and that changes to existing guidelines require collaboration with a range of stakeholders. But opportunities do arise from time to time and these guidelines and the associated case studies may be useful in determining appropriate changes. Indeed, in some countries, these guidelines may provide a useful stimulus for debating and agreeing on changes.
8. Any questions on these guidelines should be submitted by e-mail to the Statistics Division of the UNECE at firstname.lastname@example.org.