Beware the backlash from the ‘right to be forgotten’

The first deletions of Google search results under the ‘right to be forgotten’ have begun, and it’s causing a media ruckus. This won’t turn out well for the individuals concerned or the companies associated with them.

Michael Barnett

The legal requirement for search engines to remove links to news stories that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” was established by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in May, and last week it was reported that 70,000 requests have since been made to Google from across the continent. The company has issued notices to many of the UK’s biggest media organisations informing them of links that have been taken down, prompting indignant ripostes from journalists such as the BBC’s Robert Peston that have only given more coverage to the original stories.

Thanks to the media attention, it’s more likely that you’ve heard of former Scottish football referee Dougie McDonald and ex-Merrill Lynch chief executive Stan O’Neal today than it was a week ago, so you’d think in these cases the requests for removal – whomever they came from – have backfired.

In complying with the ECJ ruling, Google isn’t removing all search results, but only those generated by typing in a name and certain additional search terms. The stories themselves remain online where they were published, but with presumably far less traffic reaching them. Yesterday, the Information Commissioner’s Office told the Guardian it expects to start receiving complaints soon from people whose requests have been declined altogether by Google.

The potential implications of the ECJ ruling are highly problematic, and raise legitimate questions about whether history will be rewritten or free speech censored as a result. It’s up to Google to decide what could be construed as “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”, and at present it seems to be erring on the side on the side of the complainant – perhaps to avoid further legal action or perhaps to send a message to the EU that the law is unworkable.

One can sympathise easily enough with victims of revenge porn who might try to use the right to be forgotten to make harmful materials harder to find, and even with individuals who find their reputations permanently tarred with the brush of long-spent convictions or periods of financial hardship. But undoubtedly some will try to use the law to spare themselves embarrassment, and their reasons will be scrutinised by suspicious journalists.

Those driven by this latter motivation run the greatest risk – both to their own reputation and that of their employer. You might, for example, be a PR professional tired of being associated with a decade-old scandal when you were the game and gullible press officer put up to field the media’s questions. Or perhaps you’re a marketing director fed up with that one unfortunate quote in Marketing Week that always turns up at the top of Google’s first page. Well, better that than bring more attention to yourself and your brand as the adversary of free speech.

So if exercising the right to be forgotten has crossed your mind, ask yourself first: would you rather remain an obscure and happily retired Scottish referee or open yourself up to a whole new flurry of curiosity and media brickbats?

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