Last month saw important developments in the discourse around the right to be forgotten. Two high courts, Gujarat and Karnataka, delivered judgments on separate pleas to have particular judgments either removed from online repositories and search engine results or have personal information redacted from them. The Gujarat High Court dismissed the petition, holding that there was no legal basis to seek removal of a judgment from the Internet. On the other hand, the Karnataka High Court ordered the Court’s Registry to redact the aggrieved person’s name before releasing the order to any entity wanting to publish it. This post examines both judgments to understand the reasoning and legal basis for denying or accepting a claim based on the right to be forgotten.
Gujarat High Court
According to the facts reproduced in the order, the petitioner in this case had criminal charges filed against him for several offences, including murder, which ultimately resulted in an acquittal. At the appellate stage too, the petitioner’s acquittal was confirmed. The judgment was classified as ‘non reportable’ but nevertheless published on an online portal that reproduces judgments from all superior courts in India. It was also indexed by Google, making it easily accessible. Being distressed about this, the petitioner sought ‘permanent restrain of free public exhibition of the judgement…over the Internet’.
While dismissing the petition, the Court held that it was permissible for third parties to obtain copies of the judgment under the Gujarat High Court Rules 1993, provided their application was accompanied by an affidavit and stated reasons for requiring the judgment. Moreover, it held that publication on a website did not amount to a judgment being reported, as the classification of ‘reportable’ was only relevant from the point of view of law reports. In the Court’s opinion, there was no legal basis to order such removal and the presence of the judgment on the Internet did not violate the petitioner’s rights under Article 21 – from which the right to privacy emanates.
The Court’s dismissal of the argument that a non-reportable judgment is on an equal footing with a reportable judgment is problematic, but hardly surprising. In a 2008 decision, while describing the functions of a law reporter that was a party before it, the Supreme Court observed that “the [law report] publishes all reportable judgments along with non-reportable judgments of the Supreme Court of India” The distinction between reportable and non-reportable judgments was not in issue, but it does call for some introspection on the legal basis and rationale for classification of judgments. In an article on the evolution of law reporting in India, the constitutional expert M.P Jain explains that law reports were created as a response to Indian courts adopting the doctrine of precedent. This is the doctrine that binds lower courts to decisions of the higher courts. Precedent is created when a court lays down a new principle of law or changes or clarifies existing law. Consequently, the decision to make a ruling reportable (ideally) depends on whether it sets a precedent or not. Presumably then, there is a lesser public interest in having access to non-reportable judgments as compared to reportable ones.
While there is a clear distinction between publication in a law report and publication of the transcript of the judgment, the lack of a public interest element could have been taken into account by the High Court while deciding the petition. Moreover, it is unclear how reliance on the High Court Rules helped the Court decide against the petitioner. Third parties may be entitled to obtain a copy of a judgment, but the motivation behind a right to be forgotten is to only make information less accessible, when it is determined that there is no countervailing interest in its publication. At its root, the right is intended to enable citizens to exercise greater control over their personal information, allowing them to live without the fear that a single Google search could jeopardise their professional or personal prospects.
Karnataka High Court
Less than three weeks after the Gujarat High Court’s decision, the Karnataka High Court ordered its Registry to redact the name of the petitioner’s daughter from the cause title as well as the body of an order before handing out copies of it to any ‘service provider’. It accepted the petitioner’s contention that a name-wise search on a search engine might throw up the order, adversely affecting his daughter’s reputation and relationship with her husband. The Court clarified that the name need not be redacted from the order published on the Court’s official website.
Towards the end, it remarked that such an action was ‘in line with the trend in Western countries’ where the right to be forgotten exists as a rule in ‘sensitive cases involving women in general and highly sensitive cases involving rape or affecting the modesty and reputation of the person concerned’.
This statement is problematic. The right to be forgotten emanates from the right to privacy and data protection, which are both regarded as fundamental rights in Europe. Basing the right on ideas of honour and modesty [of women] creates some cause for concern. Further, an important distinction between this case and the one before the Gujarat High Court is that neither Google nor any website publishing court judgments were made parties to it. The claim was based on redaction of information from the source, rather than de-listing it from search engine results or deleting it from a website. This is interesting, because it allows us to think of the right to be forgotten as a comprehensive concept, instead of a singular right to de-list information from search engine results. It provides courts with a choice, allowing them to opt for the least restrictive means to secure an individual’s right to online privacy.
However, the lack of a clear legal basis to allow or deny such claims raises cause for concern. As is already apparent, different high courts are likely to take divergent views on the right to be forgotten in the absence of an overarching data protection framework that grants such rights and prescribes limits to them. In several cases, the right to be forgotten will trigger a corresponding right to freedom of expression and the right to know. The criteria to balance these important but competing claims should be in place for courts to be able to decide such requests in a just manner.