Right to be forgotten ruling will pit PR against democracy, says CIPR president

The European Court's ruling against Google on the 'right to be forgotten' could have dire long-term consequences for the public relations industry, according to CIPR president and digital PR expert Stephen Waddington.

Stephen Waddington: CIPR president and Ketchum European digital and social media director
Stephen Waddington: CIPR president and Ketchum European digital and social media director

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg issued a shock judgment this week in a case brought by Mario Costeja Gonzalez against Google in Spain, after he failed to get information about a repossession notice deleted from a newspaper website.

In a ruling that Waddington believes is probably unworkable, the court decided internet search engines must remove information deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" or face a fine.

Some expect that reputation management specialists will benefit, but Waddington predicts the outcome for the PR industry could be short-term gain but long-term pain.

"I think this ruling has short-term benefits but the application of 20th century laws to 21st century technology has potentially dire consequences for our industry in the longer term," he said.

"On the face of it the ruling is great because it will make life much easier for anyone in the online reputation management business seeking to manage an individual’s digital footprint. But it will make it far more difficult to find delisted content. As such it strikes at the principle of free speech and the democracy of the internet.

"This means that the interests of society at large and the best interests of the industry are pushing in the opposite direction, they are misaligned. In this day and age that is just not sustainable. Do we really want the financial interests of our industry to be counter to notions of democracy?"

Google sources have said they are yet to figure out how to deal with the expected flood of requests and will need to build up an "army of removal experts" in each of the 28 European Union countries, including those where Google does not have operations.

Waddington believes the scale of the internet is likely to make the court’s decision unworkable.

"As it stands it is difficult to see how it could be implemented given the sheer amount of data on the internet that search engines such as Bing and Google index."

He added: "It’s also difficult to see how you’d frame a test to determine whether content should be removed. The ruling puts the onus of that test on the search engine."

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