right to be forgotten photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/beccapeterson/
This week, the European Union released a new law that is important to the future of online reputation. This new law is what’s known as the “right to be forgotten,” and interestingly, it allows individuals the opportunity to request that Google remove outdated or inaccurate information from personal results. While this is an exciting new development for individuals whose online reputation needs repair, it’s important to note that it’s not a get out of jail free card.

What You Need to Know About the Right to be Forgotten

  • Removal from Google does not mean removal from the Internet: It’s important to note that even if Google removes a link from search engine results, Google (and any other search engine) does not have the power to completely erase the content from the Internet. Even if the search engine will not link to a web page for personal results, the content still continues to exist online, and may be found in other ways.
  • Removal may not be as wide as you’d think: It’s not entirely clear how the law will be applied on Google just yet, but experts believe that removals may be very narrow, applying only to name searches originating from the individual’s country of citizenship. As Search Engine Land notes, it’s not clear whether these requests will apply only to removing the result from searches for your name, or if the link will be entirely de-indexed. At least initially, it seems that the link will only be removed from searches for your name, and can still be found on Google by searching using other terms. As Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain explains, Google might remove “Jonathan Zittrain foreclosure of 123 Main St” results under a request, but results for “123 Main St foreclosure” would still exist (presumably with names still intact on the content itself). Search Engine Land also notes that the removal may only apply in the country where the removal request was made, so a German citizen may have links removed from Google Germany, but Google users outside of Germany in Switzerland or the U.S. can still plainly see the link in search results for the individual’s name.
  • The right to be forgotten is exclusive to European Union citizens: This law applies only to citizens of the EU. That means if you want to take advantage of the law, you’ll have to wait and see (or appeal for) a similar law in your own country. You shouldn’t count on Google using this law as an opportunity to modify their policies, either: executive chairman Eric Schmidt has expressed disappointment in the ruling, asserting that it goes too far in favor of privacy.
  • The right only extends to individuals, not businesses: At least for now, it looks like the law does not allow businesses to influence search results with removal requests. Though individuals may be able to disassociate business results that bear their name, it does not seem that businesses will be able to ask Google to remove outdated or inaccurate search results with this law. That means bad reviews, news stories, and other negative results associated with a business are still fair game.
  • Google already has policies in place to remove sensitive information: Long before the EU’s ruling, Google has had policies that protect individuals from sensitive information in search results. Google’s Removal Policies include the removal of personal information like social security numbers and images of signatures, as well as offensive images including personal information, child sexual abuse, or those that violate certain copyright laws. These policies apply to every individual, worldwide.
  • Asking to remove information may only draw attention to it: At least in this initial request phase, individuals who have asked Google to forget certain links are being widely publicized. Though even these news stories may eventually be scrubbed from Google, that doesn’t stop the public from remembering the name of the politician or pedophile who asked Google to forget it all. In fact, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, the man whose appeal led to this law, may find that the 1998 debt notice he so desperately wants removed will now be permanently indexed on Google, because as a key to developing the law, it is now relevant to the public interest. And of course — the links are only removed from Google. The content will still live on even without help from the search engine. Search Engine Land also points out that when modifying search results in response to legal requests, Google often shows a notice explaining their actions. This could call attention to the fact that individuals have had their negative search results legally scrubbed out.right to be forgotten search engine land frozen search example
  • You can’t remove just anything from Google — it has to qualify: The ruling only applies to information that is “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing at issue carried out by the operator of the search engine.” And Google also has to determine whether it is in the public interest for information to remain online. This leaves the potential for wide interpretation, and we’ll just have to wait and see how Google will handle these requests.
  • Criminal offenders with “spent” convictions may get a pass: The Guardian explains that under a longstanding UK principle, criminal convictions may be considered as “spent” and not considered in job seeking, insurance, or civil proceedings. EU convicts with “spent” criminal convictions may be able to use this new law to remove search engine links referring to the conviction.
  • The law doesn’t stop anyone from sharing deleted links on Twitter, Facebook — or anywhere else online: Though links may be removed on Google, the law does not touch on how those same links should be handled on social media and other online outlets. Users who search Twitter or Facebook to learn about an individual may still find links that have been legally removed from Google’s personal search results for an individual.

What the Right to Be Forgotten Means for the Future of Online Reputation Management

Ultimately, this new law sets an interesting precedent, but may be very limited in its impact on individual search engine results worldwide — at least for now. Requests must fall under very specific parameters, are widely open to interpretation by Google (who is not inclined to help remove these links), and may only be changed for a limited number of search terms in specific countries. It is no small development, though, that the European Union has asserted that individuals have a right to be forgotten online. This assertion may have a large influence on similar legal decisions in the future, potentially worldwide. As this law begins to take effect and we see how it actually plays out in practice, we’ll know more about how it will impact the future of online reputation management.

Even in light of this new legal development, strong reputation maintenance and proactive management is still the best policy. Legal action to remove results is limited at best, and should always be used as a last resort, at least for now. Directly requesting content owners to remove offending webpages will have more permanent results than simply removing them from search engines. Creating a campaign to develop more positive search engine results is even better: doing so will not only help to push down negative search results, it will also allow you to improve your online persona and interaction, which can have widespread benefits that go beyond just your Google search results.