Is Google manipulating the right to be forgotten?

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In May 2014, the European Union Court of Justice ruled in favour of the right to be forgotten, to give people more control over their privacy online. It allows users to request the removal of search results associated with them or their business from the SERPs. This includes information about criminal behaviour, negative reviews and any other content that is “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise objectionable”.

In light of these changes, Google has started the mammoth task of responding to some 50,000 removal requests. But is this as innocent as it seems?

It is no secret that Google was initially against the ruling. Speaking of the changes, CEO Larry Page stated: “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things. Other people are going to pile on, probably… for reasons most Europeans would find negative.”

With these words ringing in the minds of sceptics, many have started to question Google’s most recent bout of censorship, namely the case of Robert Peston.

In 2007, BBC economics editor Peston published an article titled Merrill’s Mess, which commented on the departure of Merrill Lynch’s former chairman Stan O’Neal. Almost seven years later, this relatively forgotten-about article has been the target of Google’s censorship and removed from European search results.

But why Robert Peston? His largely factual article reports nothing that hasn’t already been written, so it seems strange that he would become a target of the search engine.

On receiving news of the removal, Peston penned a new post titled Why has Google cast me into oblivion? He suggests that Google’s censorship of the article works to confirm industry fears over the new ruling: that it will be “abused to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest”.

This has sparked debate with many: did Google deliberately censor Peston’s post to exemplify the negative effects the ruling can have? Is Google using its power to gain a band of followers against the move it opposes?

The truth is, only Google knows the answers to these questions. However, one thing remains clear: online reputation management is imperative for businesses and individuals alike.

The new ruling makes it likely that brands will become complacent — or even reckless — when it comes to managing their reputation online. This is because of a phenomenon called risk compensation, whereby people are willing to take more risks when they feel safer.

Just like the cyclist who rides faster when wearing a helmet, a brand may worry less about negative content with the search removal safety net in place. For example, companies may be more willing to produce adverts with shock value in the knowledge that they can be taken down if they are deemed to cross the line.

However, search removal requests can only have a limited effect. As it stands, removals will only be granted for name searches on country-specific Google platforms. This means that search results could still appear on and on SERPs for alternative terms.

And this is just the beginning — who is to say that Google will even grant your request? The evaluation process involves the corporation making a judgement on whether your results are adequate, relevant and current. There is no guarantee that this will always work in the requester’s favour.

In short, the bad press doesn’t simply disappear — it is hidden rather than deleted. As a result, it is a combination of the production and promotion of positive press, along with search removal requests, that will prove most effective in protecting a brand’s on- and offline reputation. For more information about this, check out Steven Parker’s informative post.

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