Paul Sutton

What Does the Right to Be Forgotten Mean to You?

By: Paul Sutton | June 23, 2014 | 
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What Does the Right to be Forgotten Mean to You?By Paul Sutton

A few years ago, I went through a very bad patch in my life caused by stress.

I was snapped leaving a club one night in a drunken stupor, I was charged by the police for causing affray, and a few weeks later crashed my car into a tree on a tight bend.

The incidents were reported in the local newspaper.

They were online for everyone to see when they Googled me.

It was a huge source of embarrassment. And it hindered my pursuit of a new job, as a 30-second internet search called into question my trustworthiness, character, and reliability.

I mean, wouldn’t you think twice about hiring me if you found that out about me on the web?

The Right to Be Forgotten

But what if all that information wasn’t there when you searched?

That’s the gist of the new judgement from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) about Google.

The landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling gives individuals the right to remove “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive” information about themselves from Internet search engines.

It effectively enables individuals to scrub their Internet history of compromising data.

What Does it Mean for Google and For You?

For the record, none of that stuff happened to me.

I wasn’t snapped drunk outside a club, or charged by the police.

(I did crash my car once but, hey, who hasn’t?!)

Hopefully, this story helps to illustrate the implications of this decision on reputation management and journalism.

The ECJ has stated that Google and other search engines are responsible for the personal data that they display in search results, and Google has now made an online form publicly available to request links to third-party sites be removed.

It says it will evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis, assessing the balance of individual privacy and outdated information with public interest and our “right to know.”

The implications are not fully understood, but they are potentially far-reaching.

And don’t for a moment believe that if you’re in North America, you don’t need to keep up-to-date with developments.

The ruling may only apply to Europe at present, but it’s not unreasonable to believe it will extend globally.

Likewise, the ruling currently only applies to individuals, not organizations.

But what if, in time, it extends to companies and brands?

Freedom of Information

Many think the ruling strikes at the very principles around which the Internet was conceived: Democracy and free speech.

After all, if you can’t find information on the web when you search, what’s the point of it being there?

And from a practical perspective, it seems hard to imagine how the ruling would work.

The ECJ definition of “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive” information is far too broad.

What will the criteria be? How do you test for that criteria? How does Google go about identifying what content should and should not be delisted? Where is the line between personal privacy and public interest? When is our desire to find information on the web more important than privacy? Is it ever more important?

Privacy Hot Potato

As you can see, the ruling raises far more questions than it answers. For me, it passes the privacy hot potato to Google rather than addressing the real issue of what is published to the Internet in the first place.

It diminishes the responsibility of publishers, and that cannot be a good thing.

From a communications professional’s viewpoint, the ruling could ultimately put the emphasis back onto getting rid of the bad stuff rather than creating good stuff.

Just when brands are beginning to understand that reputation management is about creating positive messages, it has the potential to switch this mindset back to the bad old days of covering up bad news.

Back to spin.

And we all know that spin sucks. Right?

About Paul Sutton


Paul Sutton is Head of Digital Communications at BOTTLE, a UK-based comms consultancy. BOTTLE has won 15 digital media awards in the last three years, and combines logic and magic to create meaningful communications. Paul is a flowery shirt aficionado/guru/ninja and, with three kids under five, often resembles Gollum due to sleep deprivation.

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