Google ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling is win for reputation management but likely unworkable

Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled on Tuesday that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results when a citizen requests it.

The court’s landmark decision will enable individuals to ask search engines such as Bing and Google, to remove links to information in a bid to scrub their web history.

A newly qualified doctor or lawyer might ask for compromising student photos to be removed, an individual cleared in a court case could ask for stories to be deleted, and as in this test case, an individual could ask for out of date information to be delisted.

The onus has previously always fallen to online publishers to ensure content does not breach privacy or defamation laws.

The new ruling is far more wide ranging and applies across the European Union. It will make it far more difficult to find delisted content. As such it strikes at the principle of free speech and the democracy of the Internet.

And yet the Europe Court of Justice ruling is a cause for celebration for anyone in the online reputation management business seeking to manage an individual’s digital footprint.

If an individual makes a reasonable case to Google that content should be removed from its search results, the European Court ruling says that it must comply. Blogs, mainstream media articles and Wikipedia content could all be delisted.

Google will surely challenge the judgement. It has said today that it is looking at the implications of the decision.

If it stands it is difficult to see how it could be implemented given the sheer amount of data on the Internet that search engines such as Bing and Google index.

It’s also difficult to see how you’d frame a test to determine whether content should be removed. The ruling puts the onus of that test on the search engine.

The so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling was made in a case brought by Mario Costeja Gonzalez against Google in Spain, after he failed to get information about a reposition notice deleted off from a newspaper website.

Gonzalez’s lawyers successfully argued that the matter had been resolved and should therefore not show up in searches.

Is this a case of the European Court of Justice applying 20th century laws on 21st century technology, or are we set to see online data protection and personal privacy tightened up, in Europe at least?

My Ketchum colleague Auke Haagsma, Head of Public Affairs in Brussels has written about this case in more detail.

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Professional advisor for agencies and communication teams, Wadds Inc. Author: #brandvandals, Exploring PR and Management Communication. #PRstack, Share This, and others. Visiting Professor, Newcastle University.

  1. Before this judgement only the wealthy could purchase online ‘forgetfullness’.

    They would do this by employing PR practitioners to ensure negative stories were pushed to the third or fourth page of google, which noone reads.

    There is nothing wrong with this, but it does show the limits of ‘online democracy’, whatever that may be. I now wonder if the ECJ has democratised this so we can all join in the fun.

    Indeed as Stephen says it might open up new opportunities for PR practitioners to open us a line of business in identifying what constitutes “inadequate or irrelevant” data.

    So this might be a ‘good thing’. I am not sure too many people will be concerned that google will have to pay staff to manage this process.

    @Mattgourd I have not seen the internet’s free speech motto, and unfortunately nor have the NSA, GCHQ or the Russian or Chinese intelligence services. I wish I had and perhaps Tim Berners-Lee is right to insist on a Magna Carta for the internet.

  2. In the same way that if an individual is found “guilty” of murder in a court of law the media then refer to that individual as a “convicted murderer” as a matter of fact. This regardless of whether the individual actually committed the crime or not. This is fair enough and should be reported on the net.

    However, when an individual is found “not guilty” the same rules do not seem to apply? Isn’t that individual entitled to have his internet record expunged because he was found “not guilty” it means he did NOT commit the crime, as a matter of fact, and he not should suffer any negative effects as a result. In “not guilty” verdicts Judges used to say “release the accused, who is free to go without a stain on his reputation”. However, this is no longer the case if the lurid details of a false accusation remain on the Internet forever.

  3. I am certain Google’s appeal will be successful. Setting a precedent for European Law based on the recent ruling would be at the very least, nonsensical, and, as you say, could challenge the very basis of the internet’s free speech motto.

  4. I am certain Google’s appeal will be successful. Setting a precedent for European Law based on the recent ruling would be at the very least, nonsensical, and, as you say, could challenge the very basis of the internet’s free speech motto.

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