TRAI recommends that the public has the right to be forgotten, but what does it mean?
More importantly, is something like that even possible?
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An adage, perhaps, a few years younger than the internet itself, claims that “the internet never forgets.”
For the most part, it is true. Almost every day, one gets to witness politicians, celebrities, journalists, authors, or even ordinary social media users experience chagrin because the collective memory of the internet remembers their hypocrisy or general tomfoolery. Videos, screenshots, written accounts, links — all available at a moment’s notice to anyone who knows what combination of keywords to look for.
But that may now change.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (TRAI) recent recommendations on data ownership and privacy say that people should be given the “right to be forgotten”. According to TRAI, the rules for protecting personal data in the telecom space are not adequate and suggested that the public “should be given the rights to consent, data portability, and to be forgotten”.
But how will something like this work, if at all?
Policy and technology lawyer Vinay Kesri notes that this is, essentially just a recommendation, and it is ultimately up to the department of telecom (DoT) to decide if these recommendations need to be acted on, or discarded as is.
But beyond the scope of legalities, recommendations and power to implement such an option, is “the right to be forgotten” achievable in this era; an age where the IRL (in real life) and the internet are more intertwined than ever?
To understand this, we need to revisit the very beginning of this conversation.
In the year 1998, a Spaniard named Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who had hit financial difficulties, put some of his property up for auction, the details of which were covered in the news. Of course, as is the case with any news, even one that is almost 20 years old now, it can be found online. Gonzalez felt that his reputation was being damaged because every time his name would be searched online, stories about his financial problems would crop up. He went to court with a simple request — his name, and these stories, should be removed from the search engine Google's search results.
In 2014, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) decided he was right to demand such a thing and thus, he was given, for the first time in this internet-driven age, the right to be forgotten.
But did the Court of Justice’s judgment result in the deletion of material related to Gonzalez from the World Wide Web?
No. It only made it extremely difficult for people to find. But that was 2014. The internet has expanded (and sometimes for the worse) since then.
While the EU court hoped that the "right to be forgotten" principle would extend further, perhaps, even to the point of one having the right to demand that social networks get rid of unwanted information as well, things are still a little more complicated. Right now, as per the EU’s regulation, the right to be forgotten entitles “ the data subject to have the data controller erase his/her personal data, cease further dissemination of the data, and potentially have third parties halt processing of the data.”
Whatever be the case, Gonzalez was ironically immortalised in internet memory with this victory, and in the four years that followed, Google says it has received more than 6,50,000 requests to remove certain websites from its search results.
It may be difficult to find the details of the financial troubles Gonzalez faced in 1998, but, at the end of the day, all it takes is one search to know that he had to face something like this in the first place.
But others were not as lucky.
Tiziana Cantone, an Italian woman, became a celebrity overnight in perhaps the most undesirable of ways. A video featuring Cantone having sex with multiple men (her face was visible) spread across the internet and her words in the video, “Stai facendo il video? Bravo!” (“You’re filming? Bravo!”), turned into a meme. She tried to change cities and even her identity, but to no avail. Ultimately, she sought legal help. She was granted the right to be forgotten in 2016.
But a week later, she committed suicide.
Whether it was the exorbitant legal fees, or the harassment finally taking a toll on her, Cantone ended her life.
More than two years later, references to Cantone, her photos, memes about her, even Urban Dictionary references to her can be found, even if the video can’t (although it is probable that it still exists in some corner of the surface web, at the very least).
Social media and the vastness of the internet make it difficult to forget, no matter what is being directed by a court.
The right to be forgotten is then a misnomer.