The pending right to be forgotten petition came up for hearing before the Delhi High Court today. The case seeks the deletion of a court order, which has been reproduced on the website Indiankanoon.com, on the ground that it violates the petitioners’ right to privacy and reputation. This post looks at some of the contentions raised before the Court today and its response to them. However, these are mere observations and the Court is yet to take a final decision regarding the petitioner’s prayer(s).
During the course of today’s hearing, the presiding judge observed that all orders of the court constitute public records and cannot be deleted. In any case, it was pointed out that judicial decisions are normally reported and accessible on the National Judicial Data Grid and their removal from a particular website would not serve the desired purpose. Moreover, the court thought that even if the petitioner’s relief was granted, removal of content from the Internet was a technical impossibility.
The Court however did acknowledge that certain information could be redacted from judicial orders in some cases. This is routinely done in cases related to rape or other sexual offences owing to the presence of a clear legal basis for such redaction. In the present case however, the Court appeared unconvinced that a similar legal basis existed for redacting information. The petitioner’s counsel contended that personal information might become obsolete or irrelevant in certain cases, reflecting only half-truths and causing prejudice to an individual’s reputation and privacy. However, the Court observed that orders of a court could not become obsolete, and the balance if any would always tilt towards the public interest in transparency.
On several occasions, the petitioner’s counsel made a reference to the European Court of Justice’s decision in Google Spain, which is commonly credited with creating the right to be forgotten in Europe. However, the Google Spain ruling created a distinction between deleting information from its source and merely delisting it from search engine results. Further, the delisting is limited to results displayed for search performed for a particular name, ensuring that the information continues to be indexed and displayed if Internet users perform a generic search. However, no distinction was made between delisting and erasure during the course of arguments in the present case.
As an alternate prayer, it was argued for the petitioner that his name be anonymised from the court order in question. Here again, the Court felt that there was no legal basis for anonymisation in the present case. In the Court’s opinion, the information in the order was not prejudicial to the petitioner, per se. The fact that information about a family dispute was accessible to the public at large was not seen as particularly damaging.
The Indian legal framework lacks a coherent policy for anonymisation of names in judicial decisions. Under the Indian Penal Code, publishing names of victims of certain offences is prohibited. Realising that the provision did not bar courts from publishing the names of the victim, the Supreme Court held that names should be anonymised from judgments too, keeping the object of the law in mind. However, research indicates that names continue to be published by courts in a substantial number of cases. A few other laws also provide a legal basis for anonymisation, but these are limited to cases such as minor victims of sexual offences or juvenile offenders. On a few occasions, courts have used their inherent powers to order anonymisation of party names in family cases – making the decision dependent on the discretion of a judge, rather than a result of a larger policy objective. Increasing digitization of court records and easy availability of judgments on the Internet has new implications for online privacy. Transparency of the judicial process is crucial, but in the absence of any larger public interest, anonymisation may be warranted in a wider range of cases than is currently permitted.
As a concept, some form of the right to be forgotten may be essential in today’s age. However, it’s successful implementation is entirely dependent on clear legal principles that strike a balance between competing rights. In the absence of a comprehensive data protection legislation, this is difficult. However, besides the question of a right to be forgotten, this petition presents an interesting opportunity for the Court to analyse and perhaps frame guidelines where anonymisation may be adequate to protect privacy, without delisting or deleting any content.