Right to be Forgotten

 
Right to be Forgotten

All it took was a thumping victory in the world’s largest democracy for Narendra Modi to transform himself from an international outcast to invited guest. For it is a curious case of tables turning as the new Prime Minister who had been denied a US Visa for over ten years was now being congratulated by the American President with open arms. The ghost of the 2002 Gujarat riots had haunted and tarnished Narendra Modi for over a decade, as the former Chief Minister of Gujarat. An incident that was publicly cited as carnage with human rights groups accusing Modi of not moving to stop the riots, this one incident in Modi’s Chief Ministerial career often overshadowed all the good that he did in his state. This one incident was cited over and over again during elections, reminding the people of the country of Modi’s ‘alleged complicity’ even though the Supreme Court had exonerated him. Not that it matters now, but the 2002 Gujarat riots will always remain a speck on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chequered career and will remain one forever.

Unless PM Modi was a European and could take advantage of Google’s new ‘right to be forgotten’ tool to erase parts of his past! In what seems to be a powerful tool, almost like a fundamental right is an incredible debate in itself. The Right to be Forgotten or having parts of one’s past rightfully removed gives a person the power to purge records or events that are irrelevant to him now. But then who decides what ought to be removed? And who benefits from having records wiped clean? Moreover, what are the chances that this incredible new tool will not be used by criminals to remove records of misconduct?  

It is safe to say that Google is the collective memory of the world. Everything and almost everyone is on Google. At least such was the case with Mario Costeja Gonsalez. The Spaniard was concerned about a short newspaper notice from the 90’s that cropped up on Google search every now and then. Driven by debt Gonsalez sought to sell his house and even 20 years later, the notice continued to catch up with him. While Gonsalez was worried about the impact of this information on his work, he sought to have it removed from public history. But Gonsalez is not the only one trying hard to erase his online history. Eoin McKeogh, a university student is waging a tough battle against Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. In 2011, a Dublin cab driver uploaded a video of a lookalike bailing on his cab fare. An anonymous user falsely named him and from thereon, life for Eoin has been tough. Ever since Google lost the case against Gonsalez, the search giant has been swamped with requests from people all walks of life wanting to get their online histories removed. Requests include an actor wanting to remove evidence of his affair with an underage girl, a doctor wanting to expunge negative reviews and a British politician wanted to delete Google links to a book that he considered defamatory towards him.

To begin with, in Europe privacy is a right that is explicitly mentioned in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Europeans’ preoccupation with their online privacy has somewhere threatened to topple the balance between the right to know and the right to be forgotten. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman and former CEO at least isn’t cheering the dictum. “A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance,” Schmidt said during Google’s annual shareholder’s meeting. “Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong,” he added. Larry Page, Google’s current CEO is equally wary of the decision, saying “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things.” Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder brands the ruling ‘ridiculous’. He pointed out that it could lead to a scenario where a newspaper can publish information but a search engine cannot link to it. Or a smaller search engine with no footprint in Europe may throw up a result that Google cannot.

But then, that is easier said than done. If Google really has to address the thousands of requests pouring in, it will have to institute a special team of lawyers and experts. It sure is a knotty affair with many ramifications. To begin with, it has put in place an advisory committee that will look into the requests coming in. Jimmy Wales happens to be a part of the committee!   

In the deluge of requests pouring into Google is one from a mother asking for nude pictures of her daughter to be removed. In a complex connected digital world, what goes on the internet may truly threaten someone’s life. In cases of cyberbullying, harassment and revenge porn, a request to pull down information and images maybe a thankful move.

What seems to be a European privilege today, was quite a mark of dishonor in history. Damnatio Memoriae or the ‘damnation of memory’ in Latin refers to the dishonor of being removed from public memory, to be forgotten, to be scrapped clean of any evidence that a person existed. Google may take a piece from antiquity and ancient Roman practice of damnation, damnatio memoria, as we know however has been found in modern history too. When the Soviet Union football team lost the Summer Olympics in 1952, Stalin ordered that all footage of the event was destroyed. Unfortunately, the memory of a lost match would have been tougher to erase from memory!

Or maybe it is time to take a real slice out of sci-fi films. Fancy a chance with ‘Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind’ (2004) or the even more dramatic ‘Paycheck’(2003)? If what remains in public domain is subject to be wiped clean, perhaps it is time to explore the real possibility of scrubbing clean human memory in itself!     

**My Take**

  • Google works as the “collective consciousness” of the world

  • Anything which gets erased from the search engine is like erasing history or a part of our past

  • Past/ History is often used to predict the future, draw lessons from it and also appreciate our present

  • Anything erased is like re-inventing history which shouldn’t be allowed

  • Because of information on search engines,  you can today look at somebody credit’s history and decide your risk exposure with them, do a discreet back-ground check before hiring candidates etc. which are hugely beneficial and all the power would be lost because we would no more be sure whether what we are getting is filtered down or the absolute truth