The internet has made our lives easier in many ways. And one of these ways is the easy availability of information. From online shopping to how-tos to the profile and details of pretty much any person you want, everything is accessible at the click of a button.
But with transparency, there has also been an alternative discourse – the right of privacy in the digital age. And one of the recent arguments in the latter’s case is the right to be forgotten, which the Karnataka High Court recently allowed a woman to exercise in a rare case.
The High Court directed the court registry to ensure that the woman’s name would not appear in any internet searches in the public domain. The plea to remove her name was made by her father who said that the girl feared public knowledge about the case - regarding an annulment - would affect her marriage prospects and her reputation in the society.
The right to be forgotten is a contentious one because it often comes in conflict with our right to know. It has been contested and debated across the world at various points.
Take for instance, the European Union’s implementation of the right.
The European Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that search engines are liable to remove information, on an individual’s request, if it is "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" for data processing purposes. Failing to do so, the search engine stands to be fined.
Citing this ruling, an NRI lawyer approached the Delhi High Court in 2016, wanting his personal details removed from online search results about a previous court case between his wife and his mother. He argued that it might “jeopardise his prospective employment opportunities,” as the employers might think that he was part of “some sort of criminal proceeding in India”. The next hearing for the case is scheduled for Thursday.
However, in the age of the internet, is anything ever truly forgotten? Especially when it has been put online once?
Kiran Jonnalagadda, a social technologist, says that it is unlikely that information that has been put up online will ever completely disappear from the internet domain. “What right to be forgotten generally entails is merely hiding the information in question from the casual browser. Removing the data from indexing reduces the chance of someone stumbling across it accidentally. A dedicated browser can still find it,” he says.
Apar Gupta, a lawyer and volunteer trustee at the Internet Freedom Foundation, agrees that removing content from search engines only safeguards against public shame to a certain extent. Further, it becomes problematic when private entities use the right to be forgotten to remove public information from the public domain, he says.
There are other caveats to the right to be forgotten. “For one, if the order only asks Google to remove the information from its search results, not other search engines. The restriction could also be geographical. Someone using a foreign extension of the search engine could still find the information,” Kiran explains.
Dr Anja Kovacs, Director of The Internet Democracy Project, says that in India, most people looking to exercise the right to be forgotten are involved in marital disputes and do not want their personal details or past record to affect their future.
“These are private individuals, so it does not matter as much. But it’s a dangerous precedent to set, especially if public figures begin to exercise this right to make their past record disappear,” she says. She insists that public record of politicians and other people in public life must remain available for public scrutiny.
Apar points out how its misuse by public personalities also creates problems for the media, where journalists are unable to easily access information about their past.
Dr Anja warns against evocation of the right to be forgotten in cases for which other legal remedies are available.
“Take revenge porn for instance. It is absolutely atrocious but there already exist laws under which it can be taken down. You don’t need to use the other argument (right to be forgotten). It’s a slippery road to take because it’s a complicated concept,” she says.
Another example is where a person claims incorrect information about them is published on the internet. “They should file for defamation then, not for the right to be forgotten,” says Dr Anja.
Apar also says that discussion about the right to be forgotten in litigation is not sufficient. “If you indeed want a right like that, you need to have panels and committees which undertake serious debate and case studies. Otherwise it’s just censorial in nature,” he argues.