'Right to be forgotten', one year on: It's a minefield for the private individual

It is now a year since the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must remove links to "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" content about a private individual.

It's a minefield out there if you want to exercise your 'right to be forgotten', argues Dave King
It's a minefield out there if you want to exercise your 'right to be forgotten', argues Dave King
The precedent lead to a deluge of applications to Google, whose team report having reviewed more than 750,000 links, of which some 40 per cent were removed from its results pages. 

It also kick-started a heated debate between free speech campaigners and privacy proponents; the former arguing that the resultant system would be used by murderers and paedophiles to bury their ills and the latter keen to see yet greater control for private individuals as an increasing amount of one’s daily life finds its way online. 

Each side presents an emotive case that is typically exaggerated and, unsurprisingly, Google is happy to fuel the free speech advocates in the context of a precedent that it fought bitterly but cannot appeal any further. 

The truth is that the judgment is neither a cleansing solution for criminals nor a magic cure-all for those who are unfairly besmirched online. 

The media colourfully report applications by – but, note, not removals for – terrorists and criminals; but while the guidance given to Google by the Court was arguably incomplete and unhelpful, it clearly included a public interest defence for non-removal of links. 

While there may be a more appropriate home than a private organisation for this subjective burden, one would hope that terrorist and criminal applicants fall into anyone’s "no" pile. 

There are situations in which an historic, spent conviction can be suppressed – but this legislative tool in the shape of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act predates the judgment in any event.

The judgment does, though, provide a somewhat effective tool for the man on the street. 

But the precedent cannot be used to remedy results for one’s name outside Europe, nor by a corporate entity. 

Moreover, for a high-profile individual, an application to Google can be entirely counterproductive. 

Assuming the public standing of such an individual is not used to strengthen a declinature on the basis of a public interest in the link persisting, an application approval can be more damaging still. 

As well as highlighting that something has been removed, Google alerts the publisher of the original material of the relevant link’s deletion. 

Many media outlets have taken exception to such removals, creating new stories about the attempted deletion, doubtless exacerbating the reputational fallout. 

As the ethical debate rages on and the applications pour in, one thing is certain: your online profile – and specifically your Google profile – is of increasing importance. 

Recent research by YouGov demonstrated that 92 per cent of people are influenced by negative listings in a search engine and that 89 per cent of business people routinely research new contacts via Google. 

This is all the more concerning given that Google is a filter that allows negative content to rise to the top; meaning that, unmanaged, our profiles degrade rather than improve. 

Thus, the worlds of SEO and PR draw ever closer and I am convinced that online reputation management – like its now ubiquitous predecessors web design and SEO – will become a ledger line on every marcoms and IR head’s budget as well as a necessary consideration for any individual with a public profile.

Dave King is chief executive and founder of Digitalis Reputation

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