While the idea of having unfavourable results removed from a search engine such as Google would seem a simple way to protect your reputation, it looks as if for some the “right to be forgotten” may quickly become a sure-fire way of being remembered.
Over the last week, many would have seen the notice ‘some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe’ appear at the bottom of Google’s search pages, indicating that Google has started to take action following the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union in May (although it is worth noting that this notice appears on the search results yielded by some who have not submitted such requests as well as those who have). However, this week, publishers such as the Guardian and Daily Mail are fighting back in the form of articles devoted to highlighting precisely where search results have been removed and even going so far as to provide fresh links to the offending content within their articles.
This fight-back of the press in response to the de-linking of their content serves as an apt reminder that the exercise of any legal right, especially in relation to the media, must be done within the context of wider reputation considerations, ever mindful that there is no silver bullet when it comes to “cleaning up the internet” and the press, unlike a search engine, will not be so ready to “forget”.
Whilst the individuals concerned would have undoubtedly been pleased that Google fulfilled their removal request, the real repercussions may well not have been what they were expecting, namely the dreaded “Streisand Effect” – a huge surge in publicity for the very content that they were hoping would be “forgotten”. Some commentators, including UAE academic Paul Bernal have speculated that this may all be part of some kind of Google master-plan to discredit the European Court’s ruling: the argument is that by informing the press that content has been de-linked (and in fact, by de-linking certain content which, arguably, does not fall within the category of data which should according to the Court be “forgotten”) they are fanning the flames of a press-censorship debate. This, if true, is clearly a clever strategy – Google can demonstrate that they are taking steps to comply with the ruling, and are even going beyond what is required of them ostensibly in the name of protecting the privacy of individuals, whilst allowing others, namely the media, to come out all guns blazing in opposition.
Whether this is true or not, practically, this action by the media serves to highlight that successfully asserting the “right to be forgotten” may not be as simple as submitting a removal request using Google’s online form, which could in fact open one up to fresh stories about old material. Of course, this is not to say that every person who submits a request will be the subject of a media exposé but the risk is undoubtedly there, and is clearly higher the greater the “public figure” status of the person, and the more controversial or “newsworthy” the content is that has been de-linked.
Going forward, whether other media outlets seek to publicise requests by similar means remains to be seen but it may just be worth thinking twice before pressing submit on that online form, and considering the potential wider reputational ramifications.