Sunday, August 17, 2014

Forget Me, Search Engines

Mario Costeja González is now a global celebrity. He did not want to become one. He did not even want to become famous. If anything, he wanted to disappear into the shadows. Here is what happened. González, the man who sued Google is a Spanish man whose name appeared in a Spanish newspaper way back in 1998 regarding a government-ordered real estate auction to recover the social security debts he owed. Now, he is a changed man and in a good position financially. He had a peaceful life, except when he Googled his name and came across those old newspaper articles. 

Incensed Google is ruining his reputation, he has sued both the newspaper and Google Spain saying they should remove those articles because they infringed his right to privacy. On the 13th of May, the European Court of Justice(ECJ) ruled in his favour stating Google should remove the links from its listings as everyone has a ‘right to be forgotten’ which applies to any search engine, be it Google, Bing or Yahoo. Anyone can ask the search engines to remove the listings. Four months later, even as the shockwaves from that judgement continue to reverberate around the internet and González and his earlier debts gained unwanted attention all over the world, it is time to bring in the ‘right to be forgotten’ to the privacy-poor population of India.

Before Google adorers who love the Schmidtian anti-privacy mantra ‘if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’ and the fans of the philosophy ‘everything that happens must be known’ start frothing at the thought of introducing the law to India, it is important to note that the ‘right to be forgotten’ applies only to search engines and lets us users to request the search engines to take down the listings in our names. It means, whatever content has been published on a website will still be there. Only that no one will be able to find it using Google or Bing.

It also doesn’t mean that seedy politicians, or scamsters or such lot will be able to erase their past actions from the Internet. As the European ruling specifically states, “if it appeared, for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results”. In plain English, if a person who wants a listing deleted is a public figure and if that deletion is not in the interest of public interest, then the search engine can deny the request for deletion. On the other hand, the ‘right to be forgotten’ can be one of the most powerful weapons that we could give our ordinary citizens. People born in the 1980s and earlier have been lucky that their youthful antics have not been recorded on the internet for posterity. For ‘millenials’ who are not that fortunate, girls who have been victims of revenge porn and many such others, the ‘right to be forgotten’ will be the best gift.

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