Right to be forgotten

ASKED how he would like to be remembered, Lee Kuan Yew, that legendary leader of Singapore, is supposed to have said that he would like to be forgotten.

While many amongst us strive to be remembered for our achievements, real or imagined, there are countless others who want to be and in most cases should be, if they so desire, forgotten. An oft-repeated dialogue of the Urdu cinema of the olden days went something like ‘samaaj bhoolnay nahin deta’ (‘society does not allow memory lapses’). The arrival of the World Wide Web added another source of anxiety for those who want to be forgotten as ‘the internet never forgets’.

Wanton misdeeds and crimes against humanity that rightly ensure a permanent place in the annals of history — nay infamy — apart, the European Union now endorses one’s right to be forgotten, at least on the internet.

It all started in 2010 when a Spanish citizen went to his country’s regulator asking that information regarding the auction of his property be removed from the internet. The matter was referred to the European Union Court of Justice. The court, in its landmark judgement in 2014, ordered that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant data from its results when a member of the public requests it”. Google went into appeal and, in September 2019, the court ruled that, in order to balance an individual’s right to privacy and to be forgotten with the broader right to information, Google need not implement the court’s earlier order beyond EU borders. The order was further explained in the context of concerns by human rights bodies that universal enforcement of the ruling would impinge on the rights of citizens of other regions and despotic governments may use it to force search engines to block

The internet is another source of anxiety for those who want to be forgotten.

Between 2014 and 2019, Google reportedly received 845,501 right-to-be-forgotten requests that resulted in the removal of 45 per cent of the more than three million links requested to be removed. The content itself remains online; however, it cannot be found through online searches of the individual’s name.

In the subcontinent’s context, take for example those born or thrust into the life of a courtesan or ganey wali as she later came to be identified. No matter the excellence they have achieved in the classical arts of music and dance, and regardless of their fame and success, their antecedents of the bazaar are always mentioned amidst snickering and knowing winks. It also does not matter if they completely gave up the very art they spent their lifetime mastering so that society lets them be. Events and circumstances beyond their control, especially accidents of birth, are constantly dug up to ridicule people.

Some individuals derive sadistic pleasure in unnecessarily bringing up others’ past. For instance, which female singer of yesteryear, married to which wadera orindustrialist, used to perform the mujra. Such people need to be reminded that these extremely gutsy individuals overcame the hardships fate flung at them with grit and talent, and they should be allowed to move on in life with society celebrating what they made of it, instead of constantly reminding them where they started.

Yet another aspect of one’s right to be forgotten pertains to how regimes all over the world are employing technology to pry into citizens’ lives. Even before the advent of Covid-19, the fast development of surveillance technology was causing concerns. In an atmosphere bordering on paranoia, it would be unimaginable anywhere in the world for a government to employ a tracking system explicitly designed to trace and destroy terrorist cells for locating the victims of a pandemic.

In Pakistan, however, the prime minister does not tire of announcing that his government has employed a software designed by an intelligence agency in the country’s war against terrorism for tracing and isolating Covid-19 carriers. Neither he nor any of his lieutenants has ever tried to put public concerns to rest by describing how the spyware will be customised for civilian use and what filters will be deployed to ensure that fundamental civil rights are not breached.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent watchdog respected globally for its work, has also voiced its concern regarding the possible misuse of the pandemic for perpetually prying into citizens’ lives by the government. There already are enough conspiracy theories swirling about and stigma attached to the pandemic that we can certainly do without adding another controversial aspect to it.

How surreal is it that the internet search for this piece did not confirm the quote attributed to Mr Yew? Maybe he said it differently, or is the internet partly honouring his wish? One quote that surely pops up is from Hollywood icon Isabella Rossellini: “I would like to be forgotten. What’s so good about being remembered?”

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