In a letter leaked online dated May 13, 2019, it was revealed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses made sweeping changes to the practice they are best known for: proselytizing. Addressed “to all congregations in Britain and Ireland”, the letter notes that Witnesses are “accustomed to collecting personal data” on the recipients of their teachings. However, in the next paragraph, proselyting Witnesses, or publishers, are directed to “not collect personal data in connection with the field ministry”.
The letter and its Spanish and Irish translations have been published by Truth & Transparency Foundation (TTF). They come in response to “recent court decisions and the enactment of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)”, a far-reaching law in the European Union dictating what data organizations can collect and retain on European citizens.
The referenced court decision likely refers to the decision from the Court of the Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg in July 2018. As reported by Reuter’s, the court ruled that the religious institution must also comply with European privacy laws in regards to their door-to-door data collection.
When asked why the cessation of the collection of this data was significant, a self-described “faded ex-JW”, Jan, said that the way Jehovah’s Witnesses preach is “what defines them as religious organization” and therefore the implications of the change are “huge”. Jan asked that his full name not be published.
“We were always told to report if we found someone in the territory that spoke another language, were from a different ethnic group, were deaf, etc,“ he continued. “All this so they could be reached with our preaching from those who could speak their language, knew sign language and so on.”
But, the letters explicitly prohibit such behavior now stating that a “person’s name, address, language, ethnicity, and so forth” are not to be recorded.
As recently as February 2014, publishers were publicly instructed to “have tools in your witnessing case for recording interest” and to make records “neat, well-organized, and up-to-date”.
Jan recognizes that “it may seem trivial for an outsider,” but that Jehovah’s Witnesses see secular laws, such as GDPR, as “Satan’s system of things”.
In April 2018, the TTF also published ten other documents inspired by GDPR, including a form which publishers signed signifying their “consent to the use of [their] personal data” in order to “participate in some religious activities” and “receive spiritual support”. The form also acknowledges that their data may be shared with organizations outside of their home country.
The changes in procedure mandated in the most recent letters do appear to only apply to countries within the European Union. The same letter was sent to all congregations in Zimbabwe only to be retracted two days later.