Reflections on the Right to be Forgotten Part 1

On the 3rd of March, 2015, the Open Democracy Advice Centre, a non-profit Law Centre based in Cape town, launched “Heroes Under Fire”; a publication on the victimization of whistleblowers. Significantly, “Heroes under Fire” was launched at the District 6 museum, which archives the history of forceful evictions in a community known as “District 6” by the South African Apartheid regime. A striking note lay on a tile on the floor to the effect that in the light of modernization, as old structures are pulled down and new structures are laid, the museum is committed to preserving and reminding the inhabitants of the world of a dark past. This is with the intent that such cruelty as was associated with the forceful evictions would not repeat itself.

For a lot of people, the largest, most accessible District 6 museum known to them is the Internet. Of significant difference to District 6 is the fact that virtually anyone with access to the Internet can play a part in digitizing history; of themselves, of others and of events. This has had tremendous impact on universal access to information, has enabled visibility to individuals, communities and events. It has also blurred rights to privacy and redefined the obligations of various players acting within the Internet space. As with any other space with multiple actors, the utilization of the Internet has also brought out the need for countries such as Nigeria to have legislative backing and the legal capability necessary to preserve Internet freedom and protect the rights of Internet users.

Within the rave of digitization, legitimate concern of how individuals may enforce their right to privacy on the internet has arisen. There is the question of whether individuals have the right to request search engine operators (who have not provided the content but who index internet content) to pull down specific data or information about the requester such that it no longer appears in search results. In other words, do individuals hold the right to be forgotten and is it the obligation of search engine operators to enforce this right?

These questions are considered against the backdrop that the level of access to digitized content relies on search engine operators such as Google, that constantly use robots and web crawlers to index tons of information that internet users upload; so that internet searches can deliver results in a matter of seconds.

In relation to the questions earlier raised, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has provided a preliminary ruling based on a complaint brought by Mr. Costeja to the Data Protection body in Spain; requesting for information about him that he no longer considers relevant to his current social standing to be deleted from the Google search engine . Paraphrasing in very few words, the ECJ has upheld the legitimacy of search engine operators to consider the requests of individuals to pull down information of themselves that they feel is in breach of their data protection rights enshrined in the EU regulations and further transposed within the National Law of the member state that the individual belongs to.

Post contributed by Seember Nyager

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