We have watched with fascination how developments over the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ have unfolded since their recent ruling. Unless you have been living on another planet you will know that this concerns the case of a Spanish lawyer called Mario Gonzale who complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that Google had indexed pages dating back to 1988 in relation to an auction notice. He wanted Google and the newspaper to remove the offending pages because they were ranked highly against searches on his name, and which he argued infringed on his right to privacy.

Google Ruling

Since the ruling Google has been inundated with requests that, at one stage, amounted to 12,000 in 24 hours – which works out at about seven requests per second. Interestingly almost a third of these ‘takedowns’ were in relation to accusations of fraud, 20 per cent were in relation to violent/serious crimes, and around 12 per cent regarded child pornography arrests.

Of significant importance, and something that a lot of people appear to have missed, is the fact that the ruling does not mean the information in question will be deleted, just the link appearing in search results will be removed. So, it will still be on the internet… and be able to be found…. just with more difficulty. But, in addition, what applies in Europe doesn’t apply for the rest of the world. So for instance if you were searching for the same piece of information in North American or Asia you would be able to find it in the Search Engine rankings. In fact one could circumnavigate travelling to another continent to view the search results in their entirety, by downloading and using different browsers that bypass the EU’s demand and ruling on Google.

Here at Cullinan Digital Reputation Management we count amongst our client base multinational companies, politicians, High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) and their families as well as celebrities. We are naturally as interested as everybody else to find out what this ruling actually means for them as well as for our business because the implications are profound and far reaching.

As we rightly thought at the outset these takedowns are not as straight forward as everyone was led to believe because Google is able to reject a removal application on the basis of the information being considered in the public interest. According to lawyers, politicians and celebrities seeking to have incriminating information removed will probably not be able to benefit. We know that Google has convened a committee of senior company executives and independent experts to try and come up with a long-term approach to dealing with the barrage of requests – but it is not as clear cut as people hoped it might be.

Online Privacy

All of our clients are interested in the right to be forgotten…. but at the same time a realisation from them has crept in that there is little hope for takedowns happening on their behalf. Why is that? Well, the simple answer is most corporate, political, celebrity, HNWI takedowns centre around subjects that are deemed ‘in the public interest’ and these include, but are not exclusive to: pay, sex discrimination, trade union matters, voters, government, drink driving and drugs.

Even if a takedown does occur they will be back at square one as soon as a new article is rewritten, (with reference being made to the subject the individual wants removing) and posted to the web. In effect it could become an arms race: takedown requests followed by Google and an individual’s lawyers battling it out to decide what should or shouldn’t stay on the Search Engine’s referenced links.

Digital Support

However, the two groups of people that are appearing to benefit the most from the ruling are….wait for it….lawyers and the average man in the street. How come? Well, for lawyers it is simple. As it stands the EU’s guidance on what criteria Google should consider each takedown is vague to say the least: “inadequate,” “irrelevant,” “excessive,” and “outdated”. How does the team at Google benchmark each request against this criteria? Is it feasible? What about the politician who wants to be re-elected asking for his past to be covered up? Or the Doctor seeking to have negative reviews of his work removed? Or the cab driver with a long-standing DD offence? Naturally it is going to be lawyers who will take the lead on this and work will be aplenty for them, as will increased fees.

It is highly likely that cases will rapidly descend into highly contentious and difficult circumstances because when (not if) Google refuses to action the takedowns, we will see lawyers acting on behalf of individuals challenging them to do so – and using the EU ruling as the stick to beat them with. Of course it goes without saying that the two sides of the coin will have a different view on what constitutes “inadequate,” “irrelevant,” “excessive,” and “outdated”.

What about the man in the street? Well, he potentially could be the real winner because so long as he only wants to remove innocent outdated material, similar to that of Mr Gonzale, there is every reason to believe that Google will action his request. Of course if it relates to a criminal conviction of any shape or form, or other sensitive area then of course that might not be the case. But as long as it is deemed outdated, or one of the other criteria then he has a very good chance of its removal.

Only time will tell what impact this will really have though, as it stands the demand for digital reputation management and SEO is still as strong as ever and in fact far more interest is being shown in it as a result of the ruling.