Do You Have the Right To Be Forgotten?

Do You Have the Right To Be Forgotten?

7th January 2015

This week we are showing you the 10 most popular posts of 2014 on State of Digital. The top 10 is based on a combination of reading numbers, shares and comments.

This is number 6, by Jackie Hole, about the last year introduced ‘Right to be forgotten’.
Originally posted: June 3, 2014, 13:12


If you’ve been keeping up with recent Google News, you will have heard about the recent ruling from the EU allowing users to apply to search engines to remove results from current SERPS – AKA the  ‘Right To Be Forgotten‘.

According to Reuters:

“The balance between privacy and the freedom of information has been a hot topic in Europe, whose citizens enjoy some of the world’s strictest data protection laws, especially after last year’s revelations about the extensive global surveillance programs run by the United States.”

Essentially another piece of work for reputation management teams everywhere and indeed the sharper online reputation management teams are out in force with the Adwords Campaigns… I thought I’d take a look at what it is, what it means for you as a business and why or why not this is a good/bad thing!


What is the Right to be Forgotten?

The ‘Right To Be Forgotten’ is a European ruling that allows EU citizens to have links removed from search results that they find ‘objectionable’. A great talk by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on the ieaa uses the example of a teacher in training (Stacey Snyder) who posted a photo of herself dressed as a pirate having a drink on her MySpace page. The University in question found the photo to “induce minors to consume alcohol and therefore inappropriate for a teacher” and did not allow her to receive her degree in education and therefore could no longer be a teacher. She sued but a judge also ruled in favour of the University.

Viktor goes on to say that the teacher thought about taking the photo down but it was too late and had been indexed already ” as much as [the teacher] wanted the photo to be forgotten, the internet would not permit that”.

The right to be forgotten allows ‘certain individuals’ to apply to remove this type of content.

Is ‘Objectionable’ Content Your Own Fault?

Unfortunately in most cases yes! There are many excuses such as ‘I was young and impressionable‘ or just ‘posting photos for fun’, ‘I thought it was private’,  or the best excuse ‘it was not me, it was our intern/employee/scapegoat….’

BUT – and it’s a big fat hot potato ‘but’ – does the world have the right to take your personal data and share it with everyone never to forget? You can after all have the record for some offences removed or a financial default removed after X  years (in theory) so why not ‘digital footprints’ online?

As with all things, what is and isn’t objectionable is subjective, some people care, some don’t and you can’t see in to the future so you don’t really know what you’ll be doing in 20 years time, and what will be acceptable/unacceptable on and offline in 20 years time (hello legalized marijuana creating tax dollars in Colorado!).

So how do you protect your future prospects from your former self? (or the former self of your oversharing friends?)

When ‘objectionable’ content  isn’t your own fault

Information that you don’t want shared or didn’t know was shared is probably the only time when it is not your fault.

Examples include:

  • Accidentally uploaded or emailed files – although still strictly your own doing – it’s an example of how things can be indexed when we don’t mean them to be. We’ve all seen those records of email archives that have been hacked in to and all social networks have a security breach at some point.
  • Data obtained without you being told about it from a real person as a warning or without your knowledge. Facebook’s Messenger having the ability to record your conversations being one of many recent lines blurring due to potentially blind acceptance from users.
  • CCTV footage – obviously if you know the camera is there you can look suspicious by covering your face and you are told there are cameras but where are they? Are they filming you everywhere you go? Since 1998 due to the Data Protection Act in the UK you have the right to have a copy of all CCTV footage of yourself for a small fee. One of my favourite political and some might say ‘troublemaking’ comedians Mark Thomas called for all citizens to apply to receive their own data to make a point about the data protection act given that the UK has more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world – this essentially is your right to see ‘what’ is being remembered about you.
  • Other people’s photographs are also a source of discomfort for many, especially photographs of the hate variety that has led to some suicides. You do have the right to ask your friends not to tag you or to set your Facebook settings so that your permission is required to tag, and of course you can just make your profile invisible to anyone that is not connected to you or tailor your profile content to suit your own privacy requirements making lists such as ‘hide from parents’, ‘hide from boss’ etc.

Remember, Digital Means Forever

As someone who started an Interactive Media degree when Dreamweaver had not been invented yet and Google was in it’s infancy – searching online was something few people did as opposed to the total reliance we appear to have today, we were taught very early on that digital means forever whether you like it or not. As such, I have always been mindful of this and try for example to ask permission before posting pictures of others (especially my friends children!).

The Facebook generation however, have not been so cautious and almost don’t care what people think (have you visited the self rant channels on YouTube lately?), but are finding out too late that posting the fun stuff in your teens or twenties may bite you in the ass when you start moving up the career ladder or even going for interviews.

There are also numerous examples of sackings that have occurred due to social media blunders but still we see dumb tweets, facebook posts, angry emails and inappropriate photos all over the internet. Which of course brings up the ‘right to privacy’ vs ‘your own stupid fault’ debate and the hot potato that is ‘what about the content that people should know about?’

What About The Content That People ‘Should’ Know About?

May as well jump right in  – this is potentially thin ice territory and [disclaimer] these are not views necessarily expressed by me personally but what the internet says!

The question here is what ‘should’ people know or have the right to know?

For example would you want to know if the person that just started working with you or moved next door had been posting inappropriate photos online and was sacked because of it? Would that change your opinion of them? What if they had been outed by someone else for sexual preference or type of illness?

Getting darker what if they had committed a serious sexual offence or been violent towards someone X years ago? How about if they had a history of mental illness (define mental illness)? What if they had been accused by a disgruntled child in care and had done nothing but because they were reported out of spite, it has just gone on their record  anyway?  What if they were arrested for a crime they didn’t commit even if they were acquitted with no evidence – would you want to know about that?

Let’s talk about companies and corporations. Maybe they have been caught cheating in some way or committed a crime against humanity and or your personal/professional savings?

  • Should ‘they’ be allowed to ‘bury’ that ‘evidence’?
  • What if they do good things now and want to move on? Do they have a corporate duty to allow the right to remember?
  • What constitutes ‘evidence’ anyway?
  • Who decides who can and can’t have the right to be forgotten?
  • Where do we draw the line?

What About ‘Removal Rights’?

  • Will there be an appeal process?
  • Will any request to have data removed go on record and be used against us in the future? (background checks being a prime example)
  • Is this just another help us identify and flag up your dirty work ploy from Google? (see the whole tell us about anyone you know buying links thing) #tinfoilhat
  • Will there be a spate of ‘negative removals’ – deliberate requests to remove content about people that don’t want content removed. For example, what if an article discusses two opposing camps in a legal wrangle – one will want it buried, the other may not – how will this be handled by Google?
  • Currently this applies to Search Engines but will the same rules be applied to website owners, hosting providers, Social Networks?
  • What about freedom of Speech?

The Dark Side of the Right To Be Forgotten


As with all things online, there is a dark side that is open to abuse. Here are just a few areas to make you think.

Online Reputation Management Abuse

There just ‘might’ be ‘some’ companies guilty of Mugshot Extortion – whereby mugshots are deliberately posted online (DUI being the example in the article), with a follow up sales call suggesting a removal service for a fee. Anyone in the link removal business will be well aware that this exists. It’s been going on ever since computer virus checkers were invented 😉

Then of course you have the fact that not all facts online are genuine, from a reputable source but throw enough negative PR mud and it will certainly stick. What is considered slander and what is free speech and how many of the little people can actually afford the time and energy to deal with it before their business is affected?

Will the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Rewrite Internet History (and ours)?

Archiving in all areas online and off is extremely important. Once we enter the realm of censorship in this way we not only lose the accountability in some instances we lose the historical reference points from which so much other knowledge could spring.

Historical revisionism it’s called or according to Wikipedia “if it constitutes the denial of historical crimes’ is sometimes called negationism. How this may play out online is anybody’s guess at the moment as the process has only just begun – but with 12,000 requests for removals on the first day, (and allegedly over half being from criminals), with no guarantees of whether things will be removed or any sort of timescale as to when you can expect your history to be removed – this is going to be a lengthy process.

Will We Just Fill The Internet With More Crappy Content?

The whole point in the most recent algo updates is to rid the internet of poorly created content and spam, but if we are not protected with regards to being able to remove content we decide we no longer want to be associated with, will anyone bother to write anything meaningful anymore  in case it affects them later? Or will the internet be filled with more content purely to bury old content without drawing attention to the fact that there may be a need for a request to have things removed?

Will the NextGen Actually Care?

Some might say we are becoming immune to overshare and that it is a way of life to broadcast everything about yourself. If you want to get more tinfoil ready, you might even think that this was all a distraction to what is really going on behind the scenes…

What is going on behind the scenes?

Let’s face it, the constant demand for entertainment and a lack of giving a damn about what people know or think about you from the legal age of 13 (online sign up age) is not going away anytime soon!

I am still expecting someone in the future to sue their parents for posting things online when they were a baby/toddler/teen without permission that they would like to have the right to be forgotten about as an adult.

What do the Experts Think?

I asked SEOs, Brand Managers, reputation management and PR companies who deal with these sorts of requests all the time what they thought of the Right To Be Forgotten and any privacy issues it raises  – this is what they had to say:


“The right to be forgotten seems an odd concept. No one had this right before the internet was invented, so why create this legislation now? It sounds revisionist and something Stalin would endorse… This being said, there is a clear problem here. Google is too big and has become a media organisation in its own right, rather than just a search engine.I can see the right to be forgotten being manipulated. Not by the likes of you and me but by those in power: politicians, corporations and other powerful people. Indeed I have already been approached by companies wanting to clean up their search results using the right to be forgotten.


Rather than a step forward, it is a step backward for the internet and as much as it pains me to defend a Google, which I think has too much power. people should really take their grievance up with the original source of the information and not Google.”


James Crawford, managing director of PR Agency One

Reputation Management / SEO 

“It’s a messy situation on a whole lot of levels. Aside from the EU imposing censorship on a huge scale, there are there the practical issues around stopping negative information leaking into the public domain. The information will still be there, its just that Google will make it marginally harder for you to find it.


Most of the phrases users will search for are long tail i.e. [name of person] + [bad deed] and so will be found pretty easily. Because this information is only restricted on Google [eu] TLD’s, it means anyone who cares enough can just go to and get the informaiton there. Does this mean the EU will firewall from us? Does this mean any negative information on my own site will be subject to takedown requests? It just goes on and on and is a classic case of bureaucracy gone a bit crazy.”


Nick Garner, CEO 90 Digital

Brand/Business Development

“I think this is a really interesting case at a time when the web is becoming a more personalised experience.  More and more information is being extracted from our daily lives, be it our location, our search history or even the contents of our email messages.  We have become accustomed to updating apps without checking what the app has access to (check your Facebook app next time you click update).  How this information is then pulled back and displayed in search engines is quite contentious and I think this case will raise the right sort of debate about privacy.


Do I think that it is right that you are able to request information to be removed from the search engines such as Google ?  Not necessarily and this should be down to the type of information being requested to be removed and the reasons.  Ultimately this has wide reaching consequences for a search engine in general and the way/type of information it indexes.”


Dan Bell, Business Development Director – Don’t Panic Projects

Customer Experience

“The right to be forgotten may be one of the worst things ever to happen to the internet for a number of reasons:


1. It is completely unworkable – there were 12,000 requests from individuals on day one of the initiative. If it takes Google ~30 mins to review each one that’s 750 * 8 hour work days. To get it down to 1 day of requests equaling one day of work Google would need a team of 750 people just focusing on this.


2. Google’s gentle choke-hold on the internet gets that little bit tighter. Google can afford the 750 people working on these cases, but a smaller challenger brand can’t.


3. IT IS CENSORSHIP people! Get out your placards and take to the streets, screaming  your lungs out in protest! Join the Pirate Party! Write to your MP! This is that bad!


If companies have the right to demand negative articles be taken down (companies who are advertisers on Google!!) then the internet as a democratising environment which levels the playing field between companies and individuals is gone. The EU has put the search engine in the position of media owner (which the’re not) with the choice of either having to pander to its clients or refuse their requests. This is wrong!


Barring things like child porn, Google should not be held responsible for the ORGANIC results it shows. The responsibility lies with the media owner where the content sits. It’s a different case with paid ads however, and if I were to buy PPC on your name, linking to a picture of you smoking a joint (hey, it was the 90s!) and Google profits from that then that’s a different matter.


It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out, but the important thing is that for us digital people, we have a responsibility to posterity to protect the integrity of the internet and this is a serious threat.


Gus Ferguson – Founder The Tetrad Consultancy

Final Thoughts?

As a teenager I did not have the tools with which to make the same sort of digital ‘mistakes’ or even have a mobile phone  so not only am I very happy about that – I have also not had the same experience as a current teen or the same exposure to nudity and pop culture that they do now.

I do think that ‘the youth’ learn pretty quickly due to the fact that emails, photos and videos go round like wildfire – in my experience, it is often the adults that mess up. However, I did happen to see a picture of a friends daughter on Snapchat posing in underwear only yesterday. I am pretty sure the parents don’t know about this – but the fact is that I may not have either had I not seen it on the phone of another friends teen who was showing me Snapchat and calling me a loser because I hadn’t got an account yet 😉

It worries me greatly that it is the norm for young adults and teens to expose themselves this way (in all senses of the word). Is it because they are immune to it thanks to the Miley Cyrus’ of the world (don’t get me started)? I would suspect that parents are just unaware that their precious angel has access to more of everything online than ever before and because they don’t spend all day and night on social media on their phones so don’t fully ‘get it’.

I personally think that even though you should respect your child’s privacy, you shouldn’t let them go unchecked either! If in  the future you are going to get get sued for overshare without their permission – why shouldn’t you also get sued for not protecting your children by educating them to the perils thus preventing the need to have anything removed in the future?

Take the time to make sure that ALL children/teens/young adults AND parents that you  know are well aware of all the privacy settings and the dangers of sharing with strangers or putting any personal info online whether it is made public or not. If  necessary shock them by letting them know you have seen what they have not realised they need to hide 🙂 they WILL thank you for it later in life.

My thoughts on the Right to be Removed?

If content is harmful to you unnecessarily – even emotionally then there is a definite call for the ability to have it removed but perhaps we also need to add in the inability to delete entirely so that people can still be accountable if necessary.Perhaps even the ability for ‘private’ settings to remain private unless unlocked in some way? How we do that I will leave to the professors to figure out!

I’ll leave you with Viktor’s other thoughts and a link to my post on the 7 deadly sins of overshare and the fact that it is your choice to share your life online – no one is actually forcing you to do so. Ask yourself WHY you want to share so much, EDUCATE yourself, be AWARE and if you can’t control yourself ABSTAIN!


How do I request removal?

If you do have content that you would like to be considered for removal – visit the right to be forgotten form online and make your request.

If you want a step by step guide – visit this post from Search Engine Land.

Further Reading:


Darth Image courtesy of the Cheezeburger Network

Read More Articles by Jackie Hole


Written By
Jackie Hole is an Award Winning Search Marketing consultant specialising in Paid Search, Conversion Improvement and Organic Search / SEO for the USA, Canada and European markets. Starting out in Multimedia & Interface Design, Jackie has over 15 years experience in online marketing and was recently awarded European Search Personality...
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