The right to be forgotten

Published: June 24, 2014

“By using a bit of common sense, businesses can stay on top of their digital footprint and manage their reputations online, without relying on the ‘right to be forgotten’.”

For years, digital consultants and SEO specialists have been helping businesses make their content more findable online. But for obvious reasons, the industry hasn’t shouted as loudly about its work on the other side of the coin managing businesses’ online reputations.

A new ruling from the European Union Court of Justice has put the issue of online reputation management firmly on the agenda. In May, the Court ruled that individuals have a ‘right to be forgotten’ and can ask search engines to remove content about them that is “inadequate, irrelevant … or excessive”. What does this mean for businesses looking to manage their online reputations? Is it a Brave New World in which the past can be revised and repackaged on a whim?

At the moment no one’s quite sure how the ruling will be enforced and what the impact will be. Google currently has no formal framework to assess requests, and national data privacy watchdogs are passing the buck. Perhaps worryingly, this means that Google, a private company, is currently tasked with defending the public interest, even though its track record here is arguably poor: in 2011 it refused to push sites duping customers by charging for otherwise free European health cards down its results page.

At the same time a lively moral debate about the ruling has played out online and in print. Does this mean Google and other search engines are legally classified as online publishers? Is this a victory for the right to privacy or does it sound the death knell for freedom of information in the EU? The jury’s out.

While the precise consequences of the ruling are unknown, it should remind businesses to think carefully about their digital footprint. So before you hit send on a ‘right to be forgotten’ request to Google, consider these three principles of online reputation management:

1. Carry out regular online scanning. Don’t wait for a crisis to use Google and other search engines to perform simple company checks. Don’t just check whether new graduate hires have over-shared on Instagram, but whether longer-serving staff have been caught up in controversial activities at some stage in their longer careers. Online press monitoring tools can help you move beyond the first page of Google, but these need to be supplemented by tools that track social conversations, as well as searches on individual social media sites to sift through publicly available information.

2. Deal with it. If you do find something worrying, consider SEO strategies that could legitimately move the content down the results page. This isn’t about covering it up, which could become a negative story in itself. There has been a spate of recent high-profile situations where an online cover-up has become the story, from the Conservative party deleting an archive of speeches from 2000 to 2010, to Beyoncé attempting (and failing miserably) to stop publication of this unflattering image. Simply make sure your digital footprint gives a fair, balanced and accurate overview of your organisation. Links can be optimised or changed in order to minimise the exposure and findability of any detrimental coverage; new content can be created to supersede the old in top search results.

3. Bring in the specialists. If you’re unsure about how to handle sensitive online reputation management, or if there’s a particular piece of content that’s proving tricky, consult a communications and SEO specialist. They can search and filter any information in the public domain which may harm the reputation of the business and help you decide on the best strategy to address what you find.

By using a bit of common sense, businesses can stay on top of their digital footprint and manage their reputations online, without relying on the ‘right to be forgotten’.

Amanda Davie is a Founding Partner of Reform, a digital management consultancy.

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