It has been more than a decade since Indian actor and reality star Ashutosh Kaushik was arrested for drunk driving. Now he is fighting for the right to put this incident behind him forever.
Last year, Kaushik filed a petition in Delhi’s high court seeking the removal of about 20 online reports and video clips of the arrest and other “minor” incidents, underscoring a broader push in India for a legal right to be forgotten online.
“My client has become hostage to minor incidents over a decade ago, for which he has already paid the price. Why should he pay a price every time someone Googles his name?” said Akshat Bajpai, the lawyer representing Kaushik.
Kaushik’s case is one of dozens of similar petitions in India seeking to remove information from the Internet on the grounds that it is no longer necessary or relevant, pitting the right to privacy against freedom of speech and the public interest.
“We have to balance the right to be forgotten and the right to know. But what great public good is achieved by having a minor private incident arise every time someone searches his name on the Internet?” Bajpai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In the absence of a federal law, several local courts have recently ruled that the right to be forgotten or to be left alone is an inherent right to privacy, which was recognized as a fundamental right by India’s Supreme Court in 2017.
This has become a pressing issue worldwide due to the explosive growth of social media and other online platforms, but few countries have legislation that enshrines it.
The right to be forgotten has been recognized in Europe since 2014 and is also part of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The continent’s highest court ruled in 2019 that search engines should not apply the law elsewhere.
In India, government officials said the long-awaited data protection bill deals with the right to be forgotten.
A Google representative, who was mentioned in Kaushik’s petition, said the company has systems in place that allow users to flag content that violates their policies, including “removing illegal content in accordance with applicable national law.”
“Our goal has always been to support as much access to information as possible,” the spokesperson added.
Since the EU decision in 2014, Google has received more than 1.2 million requests to remove more than 4.8 million links, including from politicians, celebrities and the general public.
The search engine must comply if the links are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive”, taking into account factors of public interest.
According to Google, more than half of the requested URLs have been removed.
Elsewhere, Russia allows deletion in some circumstances, while countries including Spain, Argentina and the United States have allowed the right to be forgotten in some cases.
In India, most Right to Be Forgotten petitions come from people who have been acquitted of crimes or have served time. Some of them published information on the Internet without their consent.
But in deciding whether people can request that information about themselves be removed from searches without limiting free speech and legitimate public interests, courts are hampered by a lack of data protection law, said Anandita Mishra of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). .
IFF, a digital rights group, is the defendant in a case pending in the Kerala High Court, where the plaintiffs want their names removed from the judgment aggregator site, search engines and online court records because they were all acquitted.
The petitioners say the online records are damaging their reputations, careers and even marriage prospects.
But if in this case you forget about the right, then it “can open a can of worms” and undermine the freedom of speech and expression of opinions, as well as the right to receive information, IFF believes.
“Our position is that until a data protection law is passed, court records are public,” said Mishra, IFF’s assistant trial lawyer.
“When something is in the public domain, the right to privacy or the right to be forgotten does not apply,” she added.
India’s lack of data protection law means that people who want to claim the right to be forgotten have to fight for it in court and wage a long and expensive legal battle.
Not many can afford it, Bajpai admitted.
For the courts, too, “it’s a balancing act between the plaintiff’s right to privacy and the people’s right to know,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
For Kaushik, the actor whose case is scheduled to be heard on April 1, the question is simple.
“I was 26-27 years old when I was arrested for drunk driving. I’m 42 now and I’m still being punished for it,” he said, adding that the online reports had upset his family, hurt his career and affected marriage proposals.
“I am a public figure. But I also have the right to privacy, the right to be alone.”