The recent ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) upholding the ‘right to be forgotten’ could have been intended to bolster the right to privacy on the internet, but it strikes hard against freedom of information and free speech as well. The ECJ ruled in favour of a Spanish plaintiff, who had objected to Google searches of his name throwing up links to news reports from 1998 about his home being repossessed, and asked the search giant to remove such results immediately. The ruling effectively means that Google and other internet companies can now be forced to remove data that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed”. While this would give greater control to internet users over the information available about them online, the potential for censoring/suppressing that arises from the ruling is a part of the bigger picture.
Already, as the BBC reports, Google has received requests from a UK politician seeking public office to take down links to stories on a scandal involving him when he was in office earlier as it has from a sex-offender to take down reports of his conviction. In both cases, the information that is sought to be erased is, arguably, in public interest. The ECJ ruling opens the floodgates for many such potential requests and given the scope of the ruling is so expansive, these requests would have to be assumed as legitimate. Thus, if information that merits remaining public is buried with ease, thanks to claims of transgression of privacy, we have a problem on our hands. While online privacy is a pressing need, any move towards it must also be nuanced for freedom of information and public interest.