Two days ago, we received a “Right to be Forgetten” request from an Indian user. We had written about the individual a few years ago, protesting against attacks on his/her freedom of speech.
Under legal pressure, the individual eventually relented, and retracted the statement. Such an attempt to silence speech is referred to as libel chill, and India’s painstakingly slow and punishing judicial process makes it all the more likely. We’ve seen recent manifestations of libel chill in the publishing world, in case of books like The Descent of Air India, The Hindus and The Untold Story, where publishers have withdrawn and/or pulped books because of court cases. There’s no telling how many stories have been taken off websites, without anyone noticing.
But this is about an individual, and his or her right to be forgotten.
We say things online, and can be made to suffer for it for the rest of our lives. That one moment of indiscretion, of saying something on Twitter, Facebook or a blog, can be forever linked to us: that history would bubble up when someone searches for our name, and forever be linked with us. That can be a punishment, and individuals, just as this one, deserve to be allowed to move on, and not continue to be victimised for something they said many years ago.
This individual told us of a plan to appeal to Google (via this form), on the basis of the judgment (press release/full judgment) of the European Court of Justice, and asked us to either convert the public post into a non-indexable post, such that it may not be surfaced by search engines, or to modify the individuals name, place and any references to his/her employer in the post that we’ve written, so that it cannot be linked directly to the individual.
We were requested to only retain the last name (which is common enough), and does not change anything contextually. Else, the URL of that post will be submitted to Google, as a part of the “Right to be Forgotten” request, and as per the individual, this might hurt our ranking, or lead to a blanket removal of our website from its index. We were also asked to respect the individuals privacy, and not to blog about this request for removal.
This is a tricky one, and we’ve declined this request. At one level, it is about jurisdiction and law: The Right to be Forgotten does not exist in India, and only applies to European countries; unless we are directed to remove content by an Indian court of law, we don’t need to, and we wont.
The other, more critical, issue for us is our right as a media entity to report and record history. You’re asking us to change how history has been recorded. Done en masse, this would amount to expunging a record from history. It would be disingenuous of us to edit out something that is factually correct, and this is not a precedent we want to set. Today this request comes from someone who, perhaps, deserves that freedom from a mistake (I don’t think it was a mistake) committed so long ago, it’s mostly been forgotten. Tomorrow, it could be someone who deserves to be remembered for something, but doesn’t want to be.
An integral part of our work online is linking our content to more sources of information, both on our own website and others, and we also do not entertain requests for removal of links (following updates to Google’s algorithms): we want to give our readers access to more information, and credit those who bring more, authentic information to light; we don’t do these things for search ranking, and if our refusal to edit content or remove links hurts how Google ranks our site, so be it. As far as I understand it, the judgment is applicable to search engines, and not to media publications, so this attempt at using search ranking as a ruse for changes, is somewhat disingenuous.
We take our role as a chronicler of the growth of digital in India seriously, and we have also declined the request to not write about this notice. It is the individuals “Right to be forgotten” versus our right to Freedom of Expression, and to report and record history. If this site shutters, and all the content goes offline, that is another story. While it’s around, it stays how it is.
We also reserve the right to identify the individual, but have decided not to, for the time being. We don’t want to exacerbate what is already a compelling problem for a person trying to be forgotten.