Two weeks ago, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Google can be forced to erase links to content about individuals on the Web after a Spanish man successfully complained that an auction notice of his repossessed home on Google’s search results infringed his privacy. The test case has been seen as an important first step towards establishing the “right to be forgotten”.
Google called the ruling “disappointing” and added that it does not control data, but merely provides links to information freely available on the internet. Some have condemned the decision on the grounds that it goes against freedom of expression. From today, EU citizens who want their private details removed from the search engine will be able to do so by filling out an online form.
I thought the landmark ruling looked particularly interesting because it could have massive implications in terms of reputation management. For many, the ability to pick and choose what others can find out about you is a very appealing prospect; a kind of reputational air-brushing, so to speak. There have already been a number of applications to Google, ranging from politicians looking to hide past affairs to a doctor wishing to remove negative reviews from patients, for the removal of content online. According to the FT, traditional media outlets, including the BBC and several newspapers, have now also been contacted by criminals looking to expunge any details of past offences from the archives.
Increasingly, there is a growing awareness of the impact that reputation can have on the bottom line and how individuals are seen. This ruling will be welcome to those who believe it could be a useful tool to help manage reputations by making damaging information easier to control.
As Keystone Law solicitor Carolyn Bertin informed me, however, it is important to note that “the right to be forgotten applies to personal data that is out of date, irrelevant or inadequate: there is no such right for information about a company, as company information is not personal data.” Therefore in order to get information about a company removed, you would need to show that the search result itself links someone personally to the information found in the link.
So this ruling is far more important for individuals than businesses. Even so, people shouldn’t look at this as a ‘quick-fix’. Reputations can be shattered very quickly, but they take a very long time to be rebuilt. Simply removing unwanted information, particularly that which is ‘out of date or irrelevant’, is not going to magically restore a tarnished image. Remember ‘out of date’ doesn’t mean last month’s news, but goes back much further.
Especially in today’s digital world, where information can reach a global audience at the touch of a button, reputations must be managed on a 24hour basis. At Byfield, we help our clients to construct a clear communications strategy that tells their story in a fair and balanced way. Continuous effort is needed across a number of different channels to ensure that all stakeholders are taken into account.
It is likely that Google will be overwhelmed with applications for the removal of content now that it has accepted the ruling and opened up online forms. CEO Larry Page has argued that the ruling could damage innovation as the internet becomes more regulated. Whether this is true remains to be seen. The internet is a minefield of information that includes the good, the bad, and the very ugly. There is little point worrying about every negative or potentially damaging piece of material that could be lingering somewhere, lost far down the search engine pages. Learning how to navigate the web properly and using it to your advantage, as the ultimate communications device that it is meant to be, is by far the best way to build up and protect your name and reputation.