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The Right to be forgotten

Like everything, the Internet too has brought with it its share of challenges.

Shobhika Puri

Nobody would contest the fact that the Internet has revolutionized our lives. Terms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, etc have become common parlance. Internet is the common thread that binds together people across the world, people who are separated by millions of kilometres or geographical boundaries or religious faiths, people who would probably never meet each other. It has made the world a smaller place.

The Internet, especially its widely used avatars like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Gmail, Picasa and the like are all less than two decades old. Both the service providers and their consumers have no set of rules to follow. Both are learning as the new mediums of communication evolve. Both are learning by experience and from their mistakes. However, no system is fool-proof and the cracks are beginning to show.

Like everything, the Internet too has brought with it its share of challenges. The biggest among them is the threat to people’s privacy. The European Union is leading the debate about the ‘Right to be forgotten’. Search engines like Google and social networking sites like Facebook are at the receiving end.

So, what is this ‘Right to be forgotten’ all about? Do individuals actually have a right to be forgotten? The whole debate has arisen from the fact that once some information, whether correct or not, goes on the Internet under a person’s name it remains there for life for anybody and everybody to see. Also, the data entered by users on various social networking sites, email applications, online surveys etc becomes public property by default. It may not be visible to the general public in its original form but finds its way to the public domain through research reports based on analysis of the data fed by innocuous and unsuspecting users. This is precisely what the ‘Right to be forgotten’ debate is all about.

At the heart of the debate lies the right to privacy of every individual. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of being Googleable (meaning taken for granted!). Also, people change over a period of time. One may be okay with one’s details being available online at one point but may not be comfortable at another stage. Doesn’t an individual have the right to decide what the world can see or know about him? These are certain rights taken for granted in the ordinary brick and mortar world, then why change the standards for the e-world?

This debate becomes even more complex when public figures come in. The common man has the right to know what goes on in the lives of public figures like movie stars, politicians etc. However, even this right is not legally admissible but one that owes its validity to widespread agreement. Time and again, even public figures have demanded for their right to privacy and rightly so. It all boils down to one’s personal choice.

The legal system of any democratically run country says that one is innocent till proven guilty. Logically, this should extend to the e-world as well. It is very common to find that malicious content about many people is floating freely on the Internet and once there, it is there for life. How does one know whether the content is authentic or not? It could be the work of some enemy or competitor. Each individual should have a right to prove his innocence. Till then, the malicious content should not be freely available. It is said that punishing one innocent is worse than letting ten guilty go scot-free.

Obscenity is another thing that is threatening many societies. There are many rogue elements that resort to such immoral acts to make money or to take revenge. Individuals who are at the receiving end have the right to protect their dignity. This is something that should not be debatable and put into action immediately as the consequences of such actions are very grave.

As mentioned earlier, many commonly used Internet applications are less than two decades old. As a result, different age groups are first time users of their generation. What would be the consequences of their actions of today in future is yet to be discovered. However, the warning signs are already showing. Adolescent children are a befitting example. They are the ones most hooked to social networking sites, emails, chat forums etc. It would be no exaggeration to say that they are at such a stage where they are not grown up enough to understand the consequences of their actions even when they think they are. They are not only gullible but also believe that they don’t care for what the society thinks about them. Under such circumstances, it is but natural for them to give out personal details freely on the Internet.

Personal pictures, videos and messages are all shared in the belief that nobody is watching. Unfortunately, this is not true. It is the duty of their seniors to guide them in the right direction. What if these children don’t want their old comments to spring up on Googling their name at later stages of their life, the chances of which are very high? Don’t they have a right to let their past be?

Every person has right to be forgiven and a right to improve. What if one made some mistake at some point in one’s life and that has made way to the Internet. Now, this person wants to genuinely make good for his sins and does it successfully. The people whom he harmed have forgiven him but the Internet wouldn’t? Would this be fair?

Another right is the right to justice. If it is proved that somebody is deliberately trying to malign the reputation of some person then the culprit ought to be punished. Extending this argument to the e-world would not be easy. If there are no systems to punish the guilty then there should be none to punish the innocents either. Thus, if some individual wants to regulate content about himself, he should be allowed to do so.

Even if the right is implemented, some practical issues shall always remain like the time gap between publishing and deletion of unwanted content during which damage would already be done. The ‘Right to be forgotten’ cannot undo this but, can always help lessen the intensity of damage.

The debate is long and complex as this right encompasses many rights like the right to privacy, justice, forgiveness etc. It becomes even more complex when extended to public figures. Nevertheless, ‘Right to be forgotten’ is one right whose time has come. It ought to be implemented before the data to be managed becomes too complex to be managed, before many innocent people are punished, before many reputations are tarnished, before it is too late...

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer.)