RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN
Can one be forgotten from the internet?
In the hyper connected nature of the web today, personal information about anyone can be easily obtained within a few clicks on the internet. Personal Identifiable Information (PII) refers to any data that can distinguish a living individual uniquely or can trace it back to them.
Name, identification number like Aadhar or Pan number, address, mother’s maiden name or social media identifiers constitute PII primarily. It may also include news articles indexed with the search engines like Google, financial information like credit card, bank account details, or data of violations and criminal convictions.
There are situations where names of rape survivors are disclosed, or search results pull out personal photographs and intimate videos that easily link the content to a person. If an individual has been accused of committing a crime but has been released without any convictions, he has the right to redact his name from the court judgement. These documents can be accessed using the search engines by anyone. The court judgement is not the only verdict the individual deals with. He is left at the mercy of social media trials, news articles with photographs, videos, online debates etc. It remains indexed forever.
The Supreme Court of India observed similar issues under Article 21 of the constitution of India. Interim orders were passed to the concerned web pages to redact names of the petitioners. The fundamental rights to privacy gives an individual supremacy to not have his personal matters disclosed or publicized. It retains attacks on their reputation and honour. Right to privacy dictates the right to be left alone. An individual was subjected to questioning in relation to a case of terrorism in 2007; he was 22 yrs old at that time. He was proven not guilty and acquitted. However, when someone searches for his name on Google, the media links from 2007 daunt his character and reputation. It brings out uncomfortable secrets that could be a result of political ambitions.
Even after the courts judgement in 2007, his family is subjected to harassment and social trials based on the search results primarily. His business has faced innumerable hurdles since background verification would always bring out questions related to the past event. Several other adverse effects like social hostility, ramifying implications while traveling abroad and depression come along. Similarly, two businessmen appealed to remove various articles from the internet related to a past criminal case against them in 2002. They were released in 2016 honourably by the court however, the news articles provided false information and harmed their dignity.
Social media shapes our perspective; today everyone performs a basic search over the internet about an individual or a business. Old data exists on the internet that can be irrelevant, outdated, or false, there is no way to validate the truth online. Hence, right to be forgotten provides the right to de-link oneself from involuntary and demeaning digital archives.
Currently in India
Currently, India does not have a thorough data protection policy. Right to be forgotten is a new concept surfacing in the country. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEiTY) has emphasized in a declaration of facts that the right to privacy is a fundamental right and so is the right to be forgotten. It mentions the judgments passed by the High Court of Orissa and Karnataka where the former has been accepted.
The Information Technology Act, 2000 also advocates for blocking of information. The content may not be deleted from the internet, but it can be de-linked from the search engines, or it can be pushed to the later pages of the search results. Many times, questionable images and videos are posted on Facebook against a person’s will. The Indian courts relied on verdicts based on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in European Union.
The GDPR is a vital component of privacy and data protection, it governs how data is collected, stored, processed, and erased. Any data which is inaccurate must be erased within 30 days. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube must act in accordance with these laws.
Article 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India protects an individual under the right to be forgotten conditional upon other fundamental rights, public interest and or other defence claims.
How can I request data to be removed from the internet?
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 states that a grievance officer shall be appointed by social media platforms. They will handle grievances raised by the Indian users. They will acknowledge the issues within 24 hours and execute within 15 days. In case of non-consensual matter then it has to be taken down within 24 hours.
The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 contains provisions of the right to be forgotten. An individual can ask for removal and deletion of content that is derogatory, humiliating and threatening. Information that is “inaccurate”, “irrelevant”, “no longer required” and “inadequate” cause menace to an individual.
One can request webmaster or the site’s hosting company to remove unauthorised content from their pages. Alternatively, removal requests can be sent to Google using https://support.google.com/websearch/troubleshooter/9685456#ts=2889054%2C2889099. The form requests the applicant to enter their personal information, identify country of residence, the URL’s that need to be removed with a description of the reason. It also allows to submit identity proof and names (keywords) they would like to remove results from.
Google removes links that causes a significant threat to identify, financial fraud, intimate graphics etc. It is worthy to note that Google removes links only in jurisdictions where right to be forgotten is stated under their constitution. If Google denies then court orders seeking removal of such content can be exercised in India.
Each request is evaluated based on the merits of the case; the right applies in limited scenarios. Right to freedom of press, right to process someone’s data (search engine), right to information may override the right to be forgotten.
After determining the degree of accessibility on the internet the alleged content can be restricted. Alias names can be replaced with real names to conceal someone’s personal information. Permanent removals are also exercised. Right to erasure is limited in circumstances where the content is scientific, historical or in the interest of public.
It may also create conflicts with the right to investigate by the police that can cause unwarranted intrusion into an individual’s private life (media). The complication arises when one is left to decide which right warrants more attention. Moreover, maintaining the balance between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression is critical.
Nevertheless, past mistakes, non-consensual content and false information cannot be used as weapons against individuals. Hence, people have the authority to control the remnants of their digital footprints through this right.
All living individuals have the right to happiness and refrain themselves from unnecessary attacks on their social standing and reputation. The web and social media are primary places where people search for individuals and conduct background verification based on the search results. On the other hand, the media has the right to freedom of speech and expression. There is a fine line between the right to be forgotten and other fundamental rights; the internet will never forget you hence, one must be given authority to decide his digital footprints. Of course, it is subject to evaluation on a case-to-case basis so that there is no unwarranted advantage taken by others.
People will continue to make mistakes, but the internet leaves no room for moving on from that mistake. Information may be valuable today but may lose substance after a while. Some may not even be true, while some information may be amplified more than its appetite. Should it be removed then?