The right to be forgotten is not compatible with the Brazilian Constitution. Or is it?

By Luca Belli

The Brazilian Supreme Federal Court, or “STF” in its Brazilian acronym, recently took a landmark decision concerning the right to be forgotten (RTBF), finding that it is incompatible with the Brazilian Constitution. This attracted international attention to Brazil for a topic quite distant than the sadly frequent environmental, health, and political crises.

Readers should be warned that while reading this piece they might experience disappointment, perhaps even frustration, then renewed interest and curiosity and finally – and hopefully – an increased open-mindedness, understanding a new facet of the RTBF debate, and how this is playing out at constitutional level in Brazil.

This might happen because although the STF relies on the “RTBF” label, the content behind such label is quite different from what one might expect after following the same debate in Europe. From a comparative law perspective, this landmark judgment tellingly shows how similar constitutional rights play out in different legal cultures and may lead to heterogeneous outcomes based on the constitutional frameworks of reference.   

How it started: insolvency seasoned with personal data

As it is well-known, the first global debate on what it means to be “forgotten” in the digital environment arose in Europe, thanks to Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spaniard who, paradoxically, will never be forgotten by anyone due to his key role in the construction of the RTBF.

Costeja famously requested to deindex from Google Search information about himself that he considered to be no longer relevant. Indeed, when anyone “googled” his name, the search engine provided as the top results some link to articles reporting Costeja’s past insolvency as a debtor. Costeja argued that, despite having been convicted for insolvency, he had already paid his debt with Justice and society many years before and it was therefore unfair that his name would continue to be associated ad aeternum with a mistake he made in the past.

The follow up is well known in data protection circles. The case reached the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which, in its landmark Google Spain Judgment (C-131/12), established that search engines shall be considered as data controllers and, therefore, they have an obligation to de-index information that is inappropriate, excessive, not relevant, or no longer relevant, when a data subject to whom such data refer requests it. Such an obligation was a consequence of Article 12.b of Directive 95/46 on the protection of personal data, a pre-GDPR provision that set the basis for the European conception of the RTBF, providing for the “rectification, erasure or blocking of data the processing of which does not comply with the provisions of [the] Directive, in particular because of the incomplete or inaccurate nature of the data.”

The indirect consequence of this historic decision, and the debate it generated, is that we have all come to consider the RTBF in the terms set by the CJEU. However, what is essential to emphasize is that the CJEU approach is only one possible conception and, importantly, it was possible because of the specific characteristics of the EU legal and institutional framework. We have come to think that RTBF means the establishment of a mechanism like the one resulting from the Google Spain case, but this is the result of a particular conception of the RTBF and of how this particular conception should – or could – be implemented.

The fact that the RTBF has been predominantly analyzed and discussed through the European lenses does not mean that this is the only possible perspective, nor that this approach is necessary the best. In fact, the Brazilian conception of the RTBF is remarkably different from a conceptual, constitutional, and institutional standpoint. The main concern of the Brazilian RTBF is not how a data controller might process personal data (this is the part where frustration and disappointment might likely arise in the reader) but the STF itself leaves the door open to such possibility (this is the point where renewed interest and curiosity may arise).

The Brazilian conception of the right to be forgotten

Although the RTBF has acquired a fundamental relevance in digital policy circles, it is important to emphasize that, until recently, Brazilian jurisprudence had mainly focused on the juridical need for “forgetting” only in the analogue sphere. Indeed, before the CJEU Google Spain decision, the Brazilian Supreme Court of Justice or “STJ” – the other Brazilian Supreme Court that deals with the interpretation of the Law, differently from the previously mentioned STF, which deals with the interpretation of constitutional matters – had already considered the RTBF as a right not to be remembered, affirmed by the individual vis-à-vis traditional media outlets.

This interpretation first emerged in the “Candelaria massacre” case, a gloomy page of Brazilian history, featuring a multiple homicide perpetrated in 1993 in front of the Candelaria Church, a beautiful colonial Baroque building in Rio de Janeiro’s downtown. The gravity and the particularly picturesque stage of the massacre led Globo TV, a leading Brazilian broadcaster, to feature the massacre in a TV show called Linha Direta. Importantly, the show included in the narration some details about a man suspected of being one of the perpetrators of the massacre but later discharged.

Understandably, the man filed a complaint arguing that the inclusion of his personal information in the TV show was causing him severe emotional distress, while also reviving suspects against him, for a crime he had already been discharged of many years before. In September 2013, further to Special Appeal No. 1,334,097, the STJ agreed with the plaintiff establishing the man’s “right not to be remembered against his will, specifically with regard to discrediting facts.” This is how the RTBF was born in Brazil.

Importantly for our present discussion, this interpretation is not born out of digital technology and does not impinge upon the delisting of specific type of information as results of search engine queries. In Brazilian jurisprudence the RTBF has been conceived as a general right to effectively limit the publication of certain information. The man included in the Globo reportage had been discharged many years before, hence he had a right to be “let alone,” as Warren and Brandeis would argue, and not to be remembered for something he had not even committed. The STJ, therefore, constructed its vision of the RTBF, based on article 5.X of the Brazilian Constitution, enshrining the fundamental right to intimacy and preservation of image, two fundamental features of privacy. 

Hence, although they utilize the same label, the STJ and CJEU conceptualize two remarkably different rights, when they refer to the RTBF. While both conceptions aim at limiting access to specific types of personal information, the Brazilian conception differs from the EU one on at least three different levels.

First, their constitutional foundations. While both conceptions are intimately intertwined with individuals’ informational self-determination, the STJ built the RTBF based on the protection of privacy, honour and image, whereas the CJEU built it upon the fundamental right to data protection, which in the EU framework is a standalone fundamental right. Conspicuously, in the Brazilian constitutional framework an explicit right to data protection did not exist at the time of the Candelaria case and only since 2020 it has been in the process of being recognized

Secondly, and consequently, the original goal of the Brazilian conception of the RTBF was not to regulate how a controller should process personal data but rather to protect the private sphere of the individual. In this perspective, the goal of STJ was not – and could not have been – to regulate the deindexation of specific incorrect or outdated information, but rather to regulate the deletion of “discrediting facts” so that the private life, honour and image of any individual might be illegitimately violated.

Finally, yet extremely importantly, the fact that, at the time of the decision, an institutional framework dedicated to data protection was simply absent in Brazil did not allow the STJ to have the same leeway of the CJEU. The EU Justices enjoyed the privilege of delegating to search engine the implementation of the RTBF because, such implementation would have received guidance and would have been subject to the review of a well-consolidated system of European Data Protection Authorities. At the EU level, DPAs are expected to guarantee a harmonious and consistent interpretation and application of data protection law. At the Brazilian level, a DPA has just been established in late 2020 and announced its first regulatory agenda only in late January 2021.

This latter point is far from trivial and, in the opinion of this author, an essential preoccupation that might have driven the subsequent RTBF conceptualization of the STJ.

The stress-test

The soundness of the Brazilian definition of the RTBF, however, was going to be tested again by the STJ, in the context of another grim and unfortunate page of Brazilian story, the Aida Curi case. This case originated with the sexual assault and subsequent homicide of the young Aida Curi, in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, on the evening of 14 July 1958. At the time the case crystallized considerable media attention, not only because of its mysterious circumstances and the young age of the victim, but also because the sexual assault perpetrators tried to dissimulate it by throwing the body of the victim from the rooftop of a very high building on the Avenida Atlantica, the fancy avenue right in front of the Copacabana beach.

Needless to say, Globo TV considered the case as a perfect story for yet another Linha Direta episode. Aida Curi’s relatives, far from enjoying the TV show, sued the broadcaster for moral damages and demanded the full enjoyment of their RTBF – in the Brazilian conception, of course. According to the plaintiffs, it was indeed not conceivable that, almost 50 years after the murder, Globo TV could publicly broadcast personal information about the victim – and her family – including the victim’s name and address, in addition to unauthorized images, thus bringing back a long-closed and extremely traumatic set of events.

The brothers of Aida Curi claimed reparation against Rede Globo, but the STJ, decided that the time passed was enough to mitigate the effects of anguish and pain on the dignity of Aida Curi’s relatives, while arguing that it was impossible to report the events without mentioning the victim. This decision was appealed by Ms Curi’s family members, who demanded by means of Extraordinary Appeal No. 1,010,606, that STF recognized “their right to forget the tragedy.” It is interesting to note that the way the demand is constructed in this Appeal exemplifies tellingly the Brazilian conception of “forgetting” as erasure and prohibition from divulgation.

At this point, the STF identified in the Appeal the interest of debating the issue “with general repercussion” which is a peculiar judicial process that the Court can utilize when recognizes that a given case has particular relevance and transcendence for the Brazilian legal and judicial system. Indeed, the decision of a case with general repercussion does not only bind the parties but rather establishes a jurisprudence that must be replicated by all lower-level courts.

In February 2021, the STF finally deliberated on the Aida Curi case, establishing that “the idea of ​​a right to be forgotten is incompatible with the Constitution, thus understood as the power to prevent, due to the passage of time, the disclosure of facts or data that are true and lawfully obtained and published in analogue or digital media” and that “any excesses or abuses in the exercise of freedom of expression and information must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, based on constitutional parameters – especially those relating to the protection of honor, image, privacy and personality in general – and the explicit and specific legal provisions existing in the criminal and civil spheres.”

In other words, what the STF has deemed as incompatible with the Federal Constitution is a specific interpretation of the Brazilian version of the RTBF. What is not compatible with the Constitution is to argue that the RTBF allows to prohibit publishing true facts, lawfully obtained. At the same time, however, the STF clearly states that it remains possible for any Court of law to evaluate, on a case-by-case basis and according to constitutional parameters and existing legal provisions, if a specific episode can allow the use of the RTBF to prohibit the divulgation of information that undermine the dignity, honour, privacy, or other fundamental interests of the individual.

Hence, while explicitly prohibiting the use of the RTBF as a general right to censorship, the STF leaves room for the use of the RTBF for delisting specific personal data in an EU-like fashion, while specifying that this must be done finding guidance in the Constitution and the Law.

What next?

Given the core differences between the Brazilian and EU conception of the RTBF, as highlighted above, it is understandable in the opinion of this author that the STF adopted a less proactive and more conservative approach. This must be especially considered in light of the very recent establishment of a data protection institutional system in Brazil.

It is understandable that the STF might have preferred to de facto delegate the interpretation of when and how the RTBF could be rightfully invoked before Courts, according to constitutional and legal parameters. First, in the Brazilian interpretation of the RTBF, this right fundamentally insist on the protection of privacy – i.e. the private sphere of an individual – and, while admitting the existence of data protection concerns, these are not the main ground on which the Brazilian RTBF conception relays.

It is understandable that in a country and a region where the social need to remember and shed light on what happened in a recent history, marked by dictatorships, well-hidden atrocities, and opacity, outweighs the legitimate individual interest to prohibit the circulation of truthful and legally obtained information. In the digital sphere, however, the RTBF quintessentially translates into an extension of informational self-determination, which the Brazilian General Data Protection Law, better known as “LGPD” (Law No. 13.709 / 2018), enshrines in its article 2 as one of the “foundations” of data protection in the country and that whose fundamental character was recently recognized by the STF itself.

In this perspective, it is useful to remind the dissenting opinion of Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, in the Aida Curi case, stressing that “although it does not expressly name it, the Constitution of the Republic, in its text, contains the pillars of the right to be forgotten, as it celebrates the dignity of the human person (article 1, III), the right to privacy (article 5, X) and the right to informational self-determination – which was recognized, for example, in the disposal of the precautionary measures of the Direct Unconstitutionality Actions No. 6,387, 6,388, 6,389, 6,390 and 6,393, under the rapporteurship of Justice Rosa Weber (article 5, XII).”

It is the opinion of this author that the Brazilian debate on the RTBF in the digital sphere would be clearer if it its dimension as a right to deindexation of search engines results were to be clearly regulated. It is understandable that the STF did not dare regulating this, given its interpretation of the RTBF and the very embryonic data protection institutional framework in Brazil. However, given the increasing datafication we are currently witnessing, it would be naïve not to expect that further RTBF claims concerning the digital environment and, specifically, the way search engines process personal data will keep emerging.

The fact that the STF has left the door open to apply the RTBF in the case-by-case analysis of individual claims may reassure the reader regarding the primacy of constitutional and legal arguments in such case-by-case analysis. It may also lead the reader to – very legitimately – wonder whether such a choice is the facto the most efficient to deal with the potentially enormous number of claims and in the most coherent way, given the margin of appreciation and interpretation that each different Court may have.  

An informed debate able to clearly highlight what are the existing options and what might be the most efficient and just ways to implement them, considering the Brazilian context, would be beneficial. This will likely be one of the goals of the upcoming Latin American edition of the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference (CPDP LatAm) that will take place in July, entirely online, and will aim at exploring the most pressing issues for Latin American countries regarding privacy and data protection.

Source: Future of Privacy Forum

Originally published on March 23, 2021