Medianama.com has become perhaps the first Indian website to be asked by an individual to remove a link, failing which the user would approach Google Inc. to delete the link under the “right to be forgotten" provision granted by a European court. There’s one hitch: India doesn’t have any legal provision to entertain or process such request.

In his request to the media website, the individual cited a landmark 13 May judgment by the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU), which said users could ask search engines like Google or Bing to remove links to web pages that contain information about them.

According to the judgement, the user is also free to approach “the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results" if the search engines do not comply.

“...this individual told us of a plan to appeal to Google on the basis of the 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 individual’s 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," said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of medianama.com.

Pahwa did not reveal the identity of the individual, who made the request on 31 May. Medianama, according to Pahwa, had written about the individual “a few years ago, protesting against attacks on his/her freedom of speech." It did not give details. The media website reported about the request on 2 June.

Under legal pressure, the individual eventually relented and retracted the request.

The individual, Pahwa said, requested medianama.com to retain only his last name on the web page, cautioning that if the website does not do so, he would submit the URL (uniform resource locator or address of that link) of that web page to Google in a “right to be forgotten" request.

This, Pahwa said, “might hurt our search ranking, or lead to a blanket removal of our website from Google’s search index."

“This is a tricky one, and we’ve declined this request," said Pahwa. He added that “the implications for media are immense, since digital data, which is a recording of online history, will be affected."

The EU ruling came after a Spanish national complained in 2010 that searching his name in Google threw up links to two newspaper webpages which reported a property auction to recover social security debt he once owed, even though the information had become irrelevant since the proceedings had since been resolved.

Following the ruling, Google put up an online form (mintne.ws/1oYVP5Y), inviting users in Europe to submit their requests.

“...we will assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information," the form reads.

“When evaluating your
request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about you, as
well as whether there’s a public interest in the information—for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials..."

A Google spokesman said on Tuesday that the company had received over 41,000 requests to be forgotten so far.

On the first day itself, Google had received 12,000 requests.

“Almost a third of the requests were in relation to accusations of fraud, 20% were in relation to violent/serious crimes, and around 12% regarded child pornography arrests. More than 1,500 of these requests are believed to have come from people in the UK. An ex-politician seeking re-election, a paedophile and a GP (general practitioner) were among the British applicants", according to a 2 June report inThe Telegraph of London.

The “right to be forgotten" judgment has raised a controversy. While some argue that it upholds an individual’s privacy, others say it leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

In an interview to Mint on 26 May, Anupam Chander, director of the California International Law Center, reasoned that if a person could simply scrub all the bad information about him from being searchable on the Internet, she/he could do so by claiming that such information was “no longer relevant".

“Do we want search engines to then judge whether information remains “relevant" or is somehow “inadequate" under the threat of liability for leaving information accessible? An Internet sanitized of accessible negative information will only tell half the truth," he argued.

The ruling is not binding on India and applies only to EU countries.

According to legal experts, the country has no provision for a right to be forgotten,
either in the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000 (amended in 2008) or the IT Rules, 2011. India, for that matter, does not even have a privacy act as yet.

“In India, we do not have a concept of the right to be Forgotten. It’s a very Western concept," said Pavan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert and Supreme Court advocate.

Still, intermediaries like search engines and Internet services providers, under the country’s IT Act and IT Rules, have the obligation to exercise due diligence if an aggrieved party sends them a written notice, he said.

According to Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, an Internet rights lobby group, “right to be forgotten" cases should pass the “public interest" test.

“Privacy protection should not have a chilling effect on transparency. The question is: Does the content (which a user wants to be removed) serve a public interest that outweighs the harm that it is doing to the individual concerned? If no public interest is being served, there is no point in knowing what the content is all about. The complication with the EU ruling is that it wants intermediaries and over-the-top providers to play the role of judges," said Abraham.

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