Natalia Denegri sways on stage, singing in Spanish: “I’m going to tell you about a dream. A dream that I want to forget.”
The year is 1997, but the backing band looks trapped in the ’80s, all gas station sunglasses and button-downs. Although they play their instruments, the synthetic pop music sounds like a karaoke track. Denegri bounces around in a black halter top and skin-tight jeans, clutching a microphone, then reaches the chorus. “Who gave it to me?” she belts. “That’s what I want to know.”
The reference is not lost on the off-screen crowd, which erupts in exaggerated laughter, drowning out Denegri. “Attention in the studio!” implores the host, but the audience is too far gone.
Today, Denegri is a celebrated Argentinian actress and TV host, but this video is from a darker chapter of her life, when she was a young socialite trapped in the intoxicating orbit of football demigod Diego Maradona. The year before her ill-advised performance, Denegri was caught up in a scandal that gripped the nation, involving Maradona’s agent and a jar filled with cocaine. Her song, “Who Gave It To Me,” was a dirty double entendre referencing the episode, which is why the audience responded with such glee. She was 21 years old at the time.
“As the years went by, I realized how I was used. I was a minor,” Natalia Denegri told Rest of World. “I had no idea what I was saying.”
She would rather everyone forget about that period of her life, when she became the spectacle of Argentina — sexualized, ridiculed, and denigrated in every corner of pop culture. She wants the video of her performance, and other links associated with her past, to be de-indexed from Google — removed from the search giant’s pages, so that they won’t so easily be found.
The result is a high-profile legal case on the “right to be forgotten” — the first such case in Argentina, and one that embodies an ongoing debate between individual privacy and public interest, in a country where memory holds a particularly special significance.
Privacy and public interest blur in Argentina whenever it comes to Maradona. The magnitude of his fame is hard to grasp for non-Argentines. Exalted and scrutinized in equal measure, the football legend was a living metaphor for a nation’s collective successes and failures. He lived a life befitting a libertine deity. He died from cardiac arrest in November 2020 — Argentina’s government was unable and unwilling to enforce a Covid-19 lockdown, as the country took to the streets in grief.
“I’m dead inside,” one mourner told news cameras, mouth shrouded behind a black face mask. “My god has died.”
Maradona’s height of fame as a football player came in the 1980s, but his golden era as an icon of public debauchery was the 1990s. It was a turbulent period for both him and the country. Argentina was still emerging from seven years of military dictatorship and the psychological and economic damage that the junta wrought.
As the Argentine market opened, the remaining middle class began to import not only products from the United States but also, increasingly, its culture and lifestyle. The country hadn’t yet embarked on its collective project of reconciliation with its recent dictatorial past. It instead favored the hedonism of the decade, rife with excess and corruption.
During this era, Maradona was inseparable from his manager, Guillermo Cóppola: Diegote and Guillote, as they were known to the press, partners in revelry. The magnitude of their celebrity was gravitational — everybody in their orbit, including a young Natalia Denegri, was sucked into the ravenous public appetite for drama in those ascendant days of cable news.
Drowned out by gossip and unsubstantiated speculation, most details of what would become known as the Caso Cóppola (“the Cóppola Case”) are still difficult to parse to this day. Some, though, are unassailable:
In 1996, Cóppola turned himself in after a police investigation found a vase containing somewhere between 40 and 409 grams of cocaine in his apartment. Rumors circled him about a possible drug ring involving other celebrities, implicating anyone in his broader network. Denegri, at just 20 years of age, was taken into police custody, and then promptly released without being formally charged.
Cóppola was not the only person under investigation for possession: Maradona was implicated, along with other larger-than-life figures, such as the infamous Argentinian TV host Marcelo Tinelli and the Mexican superstar singer Luis Miguel, whom Cóppola claimed were mentioned in the police files but were never charged with any crime.
Eventually, the Argentinian court system determined that the cocaine had, in fact, been planted by corrupt law enforcement officers. Cóppola was acquitted. Hernán Bernasconi, the federal judge overseeing the case, was arrested, along with a number of police officers. A federal court sentenced them for conspiring fraudulent legal cases against the rich and famous. The sensational nature of the case created a vortex of melodrama and dubious claims.
Over the next year, Denegri was billed as one of the “Cóppola girls.” Her image was splashed all over glossy tabloids, as she was paraded out onto chat shows, including the one where she performed her song. The Argentinian public chewed her up and spat her out in the way that pop culture ruthlessly does to so many young women. In the final months of 1996, Denegri and another of the Cóppola girls were mentioned more often in the news than then-president Carlos Menem.
Over the years, Denegri began to rehabilitate her image. She became a respectable actor and appeared in plays and movies. She moved to Miami and hosted the human-interest program Corazones Guerreros on CNN Latino Miami, which won her numerous Emmys. She became involved in philanthropy, opened restaurants, and appeared in public events with politicians. For her humanitarian work and glittery performances, she received sympathetic spreads on the cover of People en Español.
In 1999, Denegri also initiated a lawsuit against the state for the moral and material damage she underwent during the Cóppola scandal. She didn’t receive a decision until mid-2020, when a federal court ruled in her favor and awarded her a little over $5,600.
While the Cóppola Case continued to fade into obscurity, it remained stubbornly present in indexed search engines. Denegri became stuck in an incident that the country refused to let go.
In 2016, Denegri approached Google with a list of 22 links that she wanted taken down in Argentina. They consisted of newspaper articles and footage about the case that were all more than 20 years old. Google refused to de-index the links.
Later that year, she formally filed a civil claim against Google. In documents filed to the court, she stated that the content made her “embarrassed and astonished, after many years of effort to obtain a place in U.S. journalism.” Denegri also declared that the episode had caused her severe psychological, spiritual, and professional damage. She contended that her individual rights carried more weight than the public’s right to information, particularly since she had been the victim of an illicit criminal investigation.
In a 2020 interview with an Argentinian newspaper, Denegri said that she had been extorted by reporters who asked for money in exchange for removing references to the Cóppola Case.
Denegri initially declined to speak with Rest of World, saying that her lawyer advised her not to do interviews. She eventually confirmed certain details and provided a statement to Rest of World:
“I was a victim. It’s not that I want to clear my image because I did something wrong: I didn’t do anything wrong at all,” she said. “The links that I asked to remove are not informative but full of pure lies to make use of my image for an economic profit. … After 20 years, it’s time to put a stop to all of this, and that’s why I spoke with Google, and after they refused to collaborate, I decided to go the legal way,” she said.
The idea that a person should be able to ask for information about themselves to be removed from the internet — or at least from Google search results — is a relatively recent concept that has largely been shaped by regulators in Europe.
“Having data about people means having power over them,” Paul Nemitz, the principal advisor on justice policy at the European Commission, told Rest of World. Google has extensive information on anybody with an online footprint, and even those without, meaning that details of your life that were previously difficult to find may now be just a click away.
In 2016, Nemitz directed European Commission efforts to implement a new legal framework around online data privacy, which was eventually enshrined in the EU as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. GDPR established that “data subjects have the right to obtain erasure of their personal data without undue delay” from data controllers — a rule that by then had become known as the “right to be forgotten.”
Because of a lack of local precedent in Argentina, Denegri’s lawyers used the EU’s arguments, including the standards set by GDPR, to make their case to the Argentine courts.
Under the EU method of right to be forgotten requests, the legal entity that clearly controlled the data in question had to be identified first. Initially, it wasn’t clear in the legal world whether search platforms such as Google would fall under the legal definition of “data controller.”
That changed after a 2014 case in which a Catalonia-based Spanish national ran into financial problems that resulted in his home foreclosure notice being published in a local newspaper and later digitized as part of its online archive. Years later, the listing still appeared in search results for the man’s name, and he lodged a complaint with Spain’s data protection agency, which eventually made its way to the Court of Justice of the European Union. It became the first major court case about the right to be forgotten, later enshrined in GDPR.
The EU court ruled that the Spanish newspaper, as a journalistic enterprise, did not have to comply with the takedown request, but Google was not allowed the same protections. Because the search engine not only collected and stored personal data but made it easily accessible to anyone in the world, Europeans had the right to petition the company to de-index material they believed was outdated and irrelevant. This meant that the content would no longer appear in search results. The original territorial scope of the case was unclear, but a court later ruled that de-indexing needed only to occur in EU member states.
For those caught up in the public view, like Denegri, it wouldn’t be so simple. The European court also established that the interest of other internet users must always be considered in takedown requests. “Every fundamental right, including the right to deletion and the right to data protection, has limits,” Nemitz told Rest of World. “The public interest, which sometimes stands against the right to deletion and also the right to be forgotten, is the right of the public to know.”
In response to Denegri’s lawsuit, Google lawyers wrote that “the author’s repeated invocation of harm in her complaint is non-existent.” They highlighted Denegri’s successful career as proof that the content had not affected her. Because of the public nature of her past, they added that the search engine was protected by the legal guarantee of free expression and access to information. “The content,” lawyers wrote, “refers to facts that transcend her privacy.”
Google refused to remove the links. It said that if Denegri wanted them taken down, she should go directly to the publications and the people who uploaded the videos.
For years, Denegri’s case bounced around between different judges, until, finally, at the beginning of 2020, a Buenos Aires civil court judge made his decision: For at least some of the links, Google would have to comply with the request.
“This was a young, inexperienced person, who was surely confused by her strange circumstantial ‘fame,’” the judge wrote. “I would like to clarify that, as I see it, it is not the right to privacy that has been affected —ultimately the plaintiff chose to expose herself publicly— but rather her right to honor.” It was the first time an Argentine court recognized the right to be forgotten.
The ruling was confirmed a few months later by the Buenos Aires Court of Appeals. The judges argued that the content circulating around Denegri was “bizarre” and “morbid” and fed into the “cult of ratings.”
Google was instructed to de-index specific content, including “videos and images from 20 years ago or more that contained … scenes of singing and dancing of poor artistic quality.” The case, however, was only a partial victory for Denegri: The court also decided that anything related to Caso Cóppola, which resulted in the conviction of former federal judge Bernasconi, should be kept up.
The judges argued that any mention of government corruption — in this case, the convicted justice officers — was something that had to be preserved. The trashy videos and sensationalist news coverage were a different matter. “Their presence does not contribute at all to any valuable purpose, other than the tangentially educational one that can be derived, by way of the absurd, of showing what the media should avoid spreading,” the judges wrote.
Martín Becerra, a professor of communications policy at the University of Buenos Aires, told Rest of World that the judges’ application of the right to be forgotten, which deals with content squarely in the public interest, no matter how sensational, clashes with Argentina’s relationship with memory. He pointed especially at the country’s long, post-junta process, in which Argentina reckoned with the 30,000 people who had “disappeared” during the dictatorship.
“This fight for historical memory is different, obviously, with [the Denegri] issue, which isn’t about life or death or crimes against humanity,” he told Rest of Word.
He said that, even so, by deleting the content, “You are amputating a significant part of what was politically and culturally relevant, and therefore you are attacking the present. … By changing what we were, you change what we are and what we are going to be.”
Currently, Argentina’s stance on the right to be forgotten is pending Google’s next steps. Paula Roko, an Argentine lawyer focused on digital rights issues, said the ruling could set a precedent, but that depends on whether the search engine appeals the decision to Argentina’s Supreme Court. Regardless, she told Rest of World, “I believe it is a paradigmatic ruling that could be used in the future to seek similar content removal measures.”
As Google decides whether to appeal the case, all the URLs in question remain indexed as before. In a statement to Rest of World, the company reinforced its position, referring to the content as “part of the cultural heritage beyond the subjective assessment of their merits and good taste.”
The company argued that de-indexing the links would not have economic consequences, but that “it is important to have a deeper debate about this decision to evaluate the consequences of enabling the de-indexing of legal content related to events with broad public impact.”
For Denegri, the ruling was mostly a symbolic triumph.
The irony is that her crusade to erase the past has had the opposite effect. Before the trial, the videos and articles about the scandal were largely unknown to younger generations. When interest in it was renewed, as a result of her case, newspapers and columnists revisited the very content she wanted erased, causing it to come back to the front pages of search engines.
The internet has a name for this: the so-called Streisand Effect, which occurs when efforts to hide information result in even greater publicity. (The phenomenon is named after the American actress Barbara Streisand, who tried to have an aerial picture of her Malibu house taken down from a photographer’s website, who published them as part of a study on coastal erosion.)
The clip of Denegri’s ill-fated song survives in the digital purgatory of YouTube. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like people are watching the video out of nostalgia. Many appear to be part of an online crusade for accessibility, ensuring that the video remains public, in spite of the efforts of its protagonist.
“You can win against Google, but you’ll never win against the internet,” says the top comment.