The Argentine Supreme Court denied celebrity Natalia Denegri’s petition to have content about a scandal she was involved in more than 25 years ago removed from search engines on Tuesday. It is the first ruling by a Supreme Court in Latin America on the “right to be forgotten,” which allows the public to control their online history.
The decision comes three months after the court listened to arguments about the right to privacy made by Natalia Denegri, and those about freedom of information made by Google. The current case escalated to the highest court after Google previously appealed a ruling in March, after the Buenos Aires Court of Appeals ordered the company to comply with Denegri’s request.
Denegri, a former socialite trapped in the orbit of football superstar Diego Maradona in the late 90s, wanted news articles and YouTube videos removed from search engines concerning a scandal that happened when she was 20. Denegri approached Google in 2016 with a list of 22 links she wanted taken down in Argentina. She was not only a public figure at the time, but the scandal involved a high-profile corruption case, including the involvement of one of Argentina’s top judges. The Court of Appeals ruled that links to the corruption case would be exempt, while the Supreme Court found that all of the links would be exempt.
The Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday upheld the notion that content about Denegri fell within the public interest. “No sufficient arguments have been provided to demonstrate that a person who was, and is, a public figure has the right to limit access to truthful information of public interest that circulates on the internet,” read the ruling. “It must be concluded that the content enjoys the minimum protection that our national constitution provides to freedom of expression.”
Legal experts and digital rights advocates told Rest of World that they worry the case’s appearance in Argentina’s highest court marks a trend in which powerful people are able to warp the nascent right to be forgotten in their own interest, even as the court ruled against Denegri’s petition.
David Greene, the civil liberties director at the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the case itself, regardless of the decision, demonstrates how the right to forget has been wielded by the powerful beyond its initial purpose.
Estelle Massé, the Europe legislative manager and global data protection lead for the digital rights organization Access Now, pointed to how the initial right to be forgotten, as interpreted by European courts, quickly spread globally beyond its initial intention. “There is, obviously, I think, a political interest in extrapolating some of these decisions.”
“If access to information about people in the public eye is blocked, information about our representatives could be blocked, too,” said Agustina Del Campo, the head of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the University of Palermo (CELE).
The right to be forgotten originated in Europe and was formally enshrined in the European Union’s 2016 General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. “[It meant] that we have a right to erasure, which is really one of the basic rights of data protection,” said Massé.
There were clear exceptions to the right — namely, that it excluded public figures or cases that involved the public interest. It would be up to the search engines — and, inevitably, future court cases — whether the public interest outweighed the privacy concerns of individuals.
“It is clear that power and economic interests are worth more than the rights of a woman, who at the time was [legally] a child and a victim of a terrible event,” Denegri told Rest of World. “I am being victimized again, for the second time in my country.”
Google has argued that it takes public interest — namely, the petitioner’s role in public life — into account when making decisions around right-to-be-forgotten cases, although the company said that it does not consider Denegri’s case to be valid, because there is no legally-enshrined right to be forgotten in Argentina. Google’s Argentina representatives told Rest of World that the ruling confirms that search engines play a key role in freedom of expression, and agreed with the judges that “the mere passing of time does not devalue the relevance of news nor information.”
The court’s ruling still leaves room for exceptions to its decision in more severe cases, such as revenge porn, said CELE researcher Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte. But, in general, “the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ won’t work in Argentine courts, and that’s good news,” he said, “because, deep down, it’s just an attempt to erase the past and alter the processes of collective memory that are key to our democratic societies.”