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It says it will evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis, assessing the balance of individual privacy and outdated information with public interest and our “right to know.”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

  • Gosh. What a debate.

    I remember being first editor then later publisher of newspapers and occasionally I’d get a call from someone asking (or threatening) to leave them out of the police reports.

    The information is there. Google can scrub every example you gave, but the information is still available for anyone who wants to search for it. DUI? It is in police reports and more and more departments are putting those online. Jail records? Same. Court documents? Likewise.

    My question on the European ruling is, it is a victory for privacy or really just a punch at Google? I mean, if I want your court and criminal activity in Davidson County, Tennessee, I don’t Google you, I go to the Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk’s website and look it up.

    I am also concerned that it may ultimately result not just in a blow against Google, but a blow against open records.

    Good reputation management will just push this stuff down anyway, because you have so much good and positive content written about you and by you that it floats to the top, no?

  • I’m with ClayMorgan. I’m really troubled by what this could mean for open records. If this ruling was about correcting false information, that would be one thing. But it’s not – it’s about our “right” to have our ugly truths forgotten. I’m not so sure we should have that right …

  • Nancy Davis

    That link is either really slow or not working at all.

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    That’s not good. We’ll check it out – thanks for letting us know, Nancy! ^ep

  • I see this as a bit of a “middle finger” to the old Google machine. A bit of an “Oh, yeah….!!” threat, schoolyard style. I wonder how feasible being ‘cleansed’ really is – in fact, Paul, aren’t you concerned that you now have that “record – that anyone who doesn’t bother to read past the first two paragraphs won’t know you made it all up?

  • belllindsay I thought the same thing!!

  • belllindsay Hmmm…fair point. Although to be honest, I’m in Europe – I’ll just get it cleansed 🙂

  • Eleanor Pierce ClayMorgan Yep, totally agreed!

  • ThePaulSutton belllindsay I LOVE this intro. Totally pulled me in! Oooohhh scandal! Nice work Paul!

  • ThePaulSutton HAHAHAHA! Perfect answer! 😀

  • I still wish you’d been snapped. It would give me something else to tease you about! I’ve been thinking a lot about this and how it could affect the way we work with clients on reputation management. The pros are that if someone says something negative about you online and it’s false, it’s now easier to get it taken down. The cons, of course, is you can pretend all the negative stuff is false. It’s certainly going to be interesting to watch.

  • It’s a double-edged sword. While I completely understand the right to privacy, it opens up a whole can of worms when evaluating what should and shouldn’t be available.
    We all make mistakes; the only difference between now and 15 years ago is anyone and everyone can see them now, versus just the local news readers/viewers from previously.
    If you had a DUI through one stupid mistake (which could have been a moment of weakness through stress or emotional triggers), should that haunt you if you’ve been sober since (the sobriety part that Google will miss)?
    Then there are the sex offenders that have already put requests in to have their data removed. I’m all for that remaining online – but, then, if the criminal has served his/her time and the law says they are allowed back into the community, should their crimes still be publicly available (when the law says they have been punished already)?
    This is why we can’t have nice things.

  • ginidietrich The days I left nightclubs in a drunken stupor were LONG before t’internet 🙂  I guess my big questions revolve around the criteria, how you prove things and how it’s policed. Doesn’t make a lot of sense at the moment, I don’t think.

  • Danny Brown Can of worms is about right. Except this is more like a barrel full. There are so many ethical and moral implications it hurts your head to think about them.

  • photo chris

    Of course public records are just that. But, “once upon a time” you had to DO something for that info. Take time out of your own life, identify yourself somehow as having reason, beyond being a nosey parker, to have it, if only to the people helping you find it. Now we can stalk and spread hurtful gossip with “internet proof” within a few seconds, rallying a stoning mob around a person who has, gasp, made a mistake, done something we judge as immoral, or is truly horrendous.
    and I rant about all of this from my high horse where I am riding through town pointing out the sexual offenders I found on the internet map…..

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