The ‘right’ of people to be forgotten and remove outdated online references to themselves has long been a subject of thorny debate across the world and now looks set to impact Malta’s shores.
Although a public debate has been lacking, it was recently revealed that the principle has actually been in practice since at least 2014 – when justice minister Owen Bonnici empowered the court registrar to delete online court judgements for petty cases.
Bonnici has now penned a lengthy opinion piece, in which he argued that this ‘right’ is intended to safeguard the privacy rights of people whose histories can now be exposed to the world at the click of a button.
“The fact that all judgments are put online means that a person could have his conduct certificate cleared according to the traditional procedures, but for all intents and purposes a simple Google search would throw all that out of the window,” he wrote in The Malta Independent. “Worse, there are cases where the person who is complaining of suffering hardship from the placing of judgments online would not even be the person found guilty by means of that judgment but a third party who would have been mentioned in the judgment for some reason or another. Say, for instance, a person is identified in a 2005 judgment as being the girlfriend of a person found guilty of a crime who would have testified in the proceedings.
Justice minister Owen Bonnici (centre)
“Little would it matter that in the meantime that person would have got married to someone else and raised a family. Little would it matter that the girlfriend in this case would have had absolutely no sentence of guilt passed against her. A prospective employer would only need to Google her name to find the judgment and decide to play safe and choose someone else for a particular job. This is not science fiction. These are experiences which people pass through.”
There are exciting times ahead in the area of data protection. I believe that in this area of civil rights we can set standards and best practices which will become more relevant as the years go by and our country will be ever more immersed in the online reality.
Bonnici said he is open to suggestions on how to improve the procedures used to establish which people have a right to be forgotten, but insisted he will not budge with regards to the principle itself.
The Malta IT Law Association warned it is “extremely concerned” at the ambivalence of the current procedure through which people can abolish their court judgements at source. It said any debate on the right to be forgotten should clearly distinguish between the removal of data from search engines like Google and the deletion of public information from public registries.