You might be forgiven for dismissing the EU’s “right to be forgotten” judgment against Google as “a European thing”, but it has widespread implications that touch upon the very essence of the service PR provides–especially when applied to reputation management.
To get a better idea about what the ruling–and Google’s compliance–means for our industry in Europe and the U.S., we spoke to seven top PR experts to get their takes on the subject.
Right now, the ability to remove links or negative comments is individualized, which means organizations are exempt and cannot expect the same. If your job is reputation management for individuals, life is going to change for you if you have clients or executives in the EU.
It will be as simple as submitting a request to Google to remove certain things. It may take them a few weeks, but they’re now legally required to comply. On the flip side, it’s highly unlikely the same ruling will happen anytime soon in the United States.
The best practice, no matter where you are in the world, is to not put anything in writing you don’t want used against you later, always apologize when you do something wrong (and you will; you’re human), and continue ethical business practices that will outweigh the negative.
For journalists, this could be a bigger issue. The Spanish man who took this case to court wanted Google to remove information about his house being foreclosed several years ago because it was hurting business today. While it’s understandable and it’s factual, it makes the job of the journalist much more difficult. Their stories may not change today or tomorrow, but somewhere down the line, the people they cover may take a proverbial black marker and remove their names.
The ruling calls into question the basic principles of search: connecting people with the information they seek. What good is information in the public domain if it can’t be found? It might as well not exist.
To allow individuals and, ultimately, companies to petition for removal of their results inside the search engine fixes the wrong problem. If privacy is a concern, surely it would be better to question what information is allowed to be placed online, and to set limits on that, rather than making it the search engine’s problem to fix.
Perhaps I find this ruling so troubling because it’s clear to me that if it were to be enforced, and make its way to the US, brands would race to use the removal petition for their own competitive advantage. Imagine every awkward conversation you’ve had with a client about Wikipedia. Now imagine that Wikipedia is the #1 source of driving leads to their business. That’s a preview of the challenging environment we will have to face as PR pros if the “right to be forgotten” ruling stands. The dialogue about reputation management, too SEO-focused as is, will take further steps back, just as many companies are starting to understand that actually living their brand promise is the best PR of all.
No matter what happens, we should recommit ourselves to educating clients that getting rid of the bad stuff is only one part of creating a reputation, on- and offline.
While there’s little information on how it will be implemented, the ruling signals a profound shift in legal thinking that could impact how we approach online reputation management.
The typical approach at present is to dilute negative information by posting lots of positive search optimized content. Our work adheres to the old scientific maxim “the solution to pollution is dilution.” But if the EU Court’s ruling can be implemented, we won’t need to rely as much on dilution for our European clients; we’ll simply instruct Google to de-index negative information that we can argue adheres to the court’s very broad definition. Our role as PR pros will be to learn how to make such arguments effectively.
If unchallenged, this ruling may change the way we consume information going forward. Using search engines to learn more about public figures, corporations, and organizations is a fundamental way we build our opinions, actions, and beliefs as a society. If we now have to question the totality of the information we have access to, it will fall upon the likes of whistleblowers, rouge agents, and Wikileaks- type groups to uncover what some may be trying to hide. The internet has become the great equalizer and the EU is in the process of limiting what the web does best.
The good news is that inaccurate or irrelevant information no longer will live on the Internet forever. However, it is still important that companies proactively create a balanced level of positive, accurate and relevant news so that anything negative or inaccurate is viewed within the appropriate context.
The ruling doesn’t change the web for the worse, but it certainly raises the need for regulators to think about how to best balance transparency with consumer protections.
This is a shocking ruling in many respects. It runs contrary to the notion of democracy on the internet and is practically unworkable, in terms of identifying the kinds of content that will need to be removed. Nor is it clear what criteria will be used to assess whether material should be taken down. For journalists and PR professionals, it will make finding historical content much more challenging. In truth, I can’t see how it can be implemented successfully as it just isn’t practical to apply analogue law to the digital world.
With this ruling, the EU has hired Google as its policeman for privacy rights online. The problem, however, is that the EU is placing all the financial and technical burden on Google to respond to and enforce their policies. While I believe we all have a right to some control of what is said about us online, I don’t think it is fair to force Google to be the intermediary between individuals and publishers.
Seems that we’ve reached something of a consensus. While its effects may be limited at the moment, the ruling raises serious questions about the public’s relationship with information and, by extension, our roles as managers of the narratives formed by that information.
Even if the ruling never takes hold stateside, it forces anyone with European contacts and/or clients to ask serious questions about the most important tool we have: the Internet and its democratization of digital data.
What do you think?