An EU court ruling has taken step towards giving people the “right to be forgotten”, forcing Google and other search engines to remove certain links from search results. But what kind of things do people normally want to be forgotten online, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.
Mario Costeja Gonzalez wants Google to stop displaying a search result showing that his house had been auctioned after he ran into financial difficulties 16 years ago. His case could have far-reaching consequences.
A law giving users “the right to be forgotten” was first proposed two years ago. But Google opposes the move and anti-censorship campaign Index on Censorship has warned about the dangers of allowing people to whitewash their personal history.
But who might make use of the new law, and why?
Paris Brown, who was for six short days the UK’s first youth police and crime commissioner last year, might provide an example of the kind of person who might want the option of the right-to-forget rules. Brown, then 17, had posted comments to Twitter when she was aged 14-16 that could have been interpreted as homophobic and racist. In a statement at the time of her resignation, she denied she held unpleasant views and said that she had “fallen into the trap of behaving with bravado on social networking sites”. The top result on a Google search for Brown today is a Daily Mail article calling her “foul-mouthed” and “offensive”.
At the time of Paris Brown’s public downfall, Ann Barnes, Kent’s adult police and crime commissioner, told reporters: “I’m sure many people today would not have the jobs they are in if their thoughts in their teenage years were scrutinised.”
Young candidates being Googled by employers
Employers regularly Google prospective candidates to learn about their history – negative images and posts are then viewed very briefly, out of context, in a way that can transform something slightly inadvisable into a real obstacle to getting an interview.
The head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Ben Wilmott, says that though employers should only be evaluating candidates based on their competency for the job and any profiles on professional social networking websites such as LinkedIn, many do more general Google searches that can look at private lives. A recent survey by the CIPD found that 40% of employers look at social media profiles to inform their recruitment decisions.
“There’s a question mark over how and when employers should use the information they find on Google ‘fishing expeditions’,” he says. “What this law could do is refocus employers – they’ll have to go back to asking if this person is the right person for the job strictly on the basis of their qualifications.”
One university student, who did not wish to be named, says she could imagine potentially using the right to be forgotten in the future. “People often say that potential employers Google or Facebook your name. There are pictures of me next to toilets full of vomit, and drunken pictures in nightclubs. Things make their way online that I would rather potential employers or future partners didn’t see.”
Domestic violence victims
There’s a more serious side even than dented unemployment prospects.
Victims of domestic abuse often face a situation where a violent ex-partner is trying to track them down. The victims are often named in media reports about their partners’ crimes. Details about unhappy relationships and harrowing tales of violence can be permanently associated with their names, even as they want to move on to a new life of independence and freedom.
Because of that, the EU’s recent decision is a good thing, believes Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, an anti-domestic violence charity. “We welcome changes which would give survivors of domestic violence more control over their personal details online,” she says. But what would be better is ensuring victims aren’t named in the first place.
“Too many news outlets perpetuate misleading stereotypes of domestic violence. Perpetrators, and victims report stories in a sensationalist way, and can put women and children at risk of retaliation. The media has a responsibility to ensure that stories about domestic violence don’t do further damage to the survivor or impact on her recovery.”
In the UK, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act allows convictions to be “spent” after a certain period of time. For instance, for anyone sentenced to less than six months in prison, their conviction has become spent after seven years. Spent convictions typically do not need to be disclosed to employers, but it’s easy to see how a Google search result could void any possible benefit from the act.
Many asylum seekers have concerns about their whereabouts being known, says Andy Warmington, who helps run Crossings, an arts charity that works with immigrants, based in the north east of England.
Members are fleeing from complicated situations in their home countries, and Warmington can see the positive points for those he works with of being able to wipe clean one’s online record.
“Being able to contact Google or Facebook and have their data removed entirely gives them control over their fear, and the risks they perceive they’re facing,” he says.
But those fighting for the right to have something forgotten should be wary of the “Streisand effect”. Named after the singer and actor Barbra Streisand, proponents suggest that the mere act of trying to suppress a piece of information on the internet can backfire spectacularly. Streisand reportedly attempted to suppress photos of her beachside home, but media coverage of the action massively increased the number of people viewing the photos.
Or there’s the case of Max Mosley who has taken legal action to force Google to stop linking to images of him during an orgy with prostitutes because of the breach of his privacy. but the net result does of course increase the level of references to the episode.