[WATCH] Justice minister wants frank debate on ‘right to be forgotten’

Controversial right would allow people to have online histories removed when this affects their life unduly

Owen Bonnici. Photo: Ray Attard
Owen Bonnici. Photo: Ray Attard
Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino. Photo: Ray Attard
Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino. Photo: Ray Attard
Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia. Photo: Ray Attard
Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia. Photo: Ray Attard
Justice minister wants frank debate on ‘right to be forgotten’ • Video by Ray Attard

Justice minister Owen Bonnici has suggested that Maltese MPs should start discussing the ‘right to be forgotten’, an issue arising from the desire of individuals to not to be stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.

He was speaking at a meeting convened by Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino on freedom of information.

The controversial concept has raised concerns about its impact on the right to freedom of expression, although supporters say it addresses problems relating to petty crimes or revenge porn affecting people’s reputations.

Bonnici gave an example of a man who emailed him, telling him that despite his clean police conduct certificate a prospective employer had Googled his name and found out that he had been found guilty of theft 10 years earlier.

“The man lost his job… the consequences are far-reaching and we are underestimating what this right means.

“I know this is a delicate subject. It could be mistaken as an excuse for the government to remove information, but I am extending an invitation to the political class for a frank debate on the right to be forgotten.”

Article 12 of the Directive 95/46/EC the EU gave a legal basis for the ‘internet protection’ for individuals.

With Google, people can exercise the Right to be Forgotten and request removal from a search engine, by completing a form through the search engine’s website. Google’s removal request process requires the applicant to identify their country of residence, personal information, a list of the URLs to be removed along with a short description of each one, and attachment of legal identification. The applicant receives an email from Google confirming the request but the request must be assessed before it is approved for removal.

If the request is approved, the link is removed from search results but the content, however, remains online and is not completely erased. After a request is filled, their removals team reviews the request, weighing “the individual's right to privacy against the public's right to know,” deciding if the website is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”

Picking up from Bonnici’s intervention, Scotland’s Ombudsman Jim Martin said that finding a balance between the rights to information and the right to privacy often seemed contradictory.

“One of the best ways to do resolve this is to bring information centres and the Ombudsman closer together to safeguard the right to privacy,” he said.

Former home affairs minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said one of the biggest challenges any government faced was having the courage to divulge information, often against the opinion of the civil service, and to change the attitude of the civil service towards Sunshine laws.

Speaking about his involvement in the Freedom of Information Act, he said that it had been the first time that the public was being given “added value” as an entity that could also scrutinise decisions taken.

“I am concerned by the drop in numbers of people making requests, and I think people need to be made aware of their rights as this will empower them to be more active members of society,” Mifsud Bonnici said, referring to statistics shown by information and data protection commissioner Saviour Cachia earlier in the conference.

Cachia said that although politicians needed to be made aware of the importance of information being made public, discussions into what belongs in the private realm were needed on a parliamentary level.

“An individual can ask to be supplied with specific information, and if it is not provided ultimately, there is an internal process to review the application,” he said, adding however, that the first decision was never overturned, and that the process was merely a formality.

He said that 2012 had seen 35 FOI requests were accepted, while 128 requests were made in 2013, 76 in 2014 and 61 in 2015.

Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino said that information needed to be made available in public administration to make sure that information was not leaked wrongly in the future.

“It would be counter-productive not to reveal certain information,” he said, adding that there should be necessary structures to ensure that there is better accountability and efficiency.

Said Pullicino further added that education was needed both for members of the public to understand their rights and for members of the administration to be more open to supplying information.

Speaker Anglu Farrugia spoke of the importance of truth and transparency in the role of the ombudsman. “Ombudsmen are invaluable because they hold the executives accountable and defend citizens against the abuse of power and maladministration,” he said.

Farrugia added that the limits of citizens’ rights to be informed had long been controversial and debated in Malta. “The degree of effectiveness of the Ombudsman’s performance depends on the level of autonomy and independence his office enjoys,” he added.

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello said that the right to impart and receive information also applies to the right to receive information that also offends. “Today the ECHR has established that this right includes the right to all information even to that which offends, shocks and disturbs,” he said.

Bonello added that the only exceptions should be issues that pose a threat to national security, public safety, protection of health and morals, to the proliferation of crime.

“This should be the only barrier between full dissemination of information and restraint. The concept of democracy is hat everything should be in the public domain except for the restrictions I have just mentioned,” he said.

Opposition whip David Agius and social affairs committee chairperson Deborah Schembri were also present at the conference.