The EU’s “right to be forgotten” is not an effective way to improve your reputation online

My company, BrandYourself, helps individuals clean up, protect and improve their reputation online and privacy. I’ve written about reputation and its importance in the past (here, here and here), but this is one of the major principles we believe: a negative google result can happen to anyone and it shouldn’t keep you from ever moving on with your life. All it takes is a single negative Google result to ruin your career. Maybe you made a mistake when you were young. Maybe you broke up with the wrong person or fired the wrong employee and they’ve trashed you online. No matter what the case, once the result is there, it serves as a scarlet letter for the rest of your life.

Over the last 2 years, we’ve seen a huge influx in customers coming from countries in the EU. Unlike their American counterparts, EU citizens have access to a law meant to help people in this situation called the “right to be forgotten”. In essence, it’s meant to give individuals a way to remove unwanted results from search engines so it doesn’t have a permanent negative impact on their life and livelihood. I think the law is an important acknowledgement of how big an issue this is for millions of people.

However, while Right To Be Forgotten truly is a good gesture, after working with thousands of EU customers, and researching loads of data, it’s clear it’s not an effective way to actually deal with most of problems.

If you are dealing with a negative search result, here’s what you need to know about Right to Be Forgotten.

What is it:

In May 2014, in a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice established the “right to be forgotten,” or more accurately, the “right to delist,” allowing Europeans to ask search engines to delist information about themselves from search results. In deciding what to delist, search engines like Google must consider if the information in question is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive”—and whether there is a public interest in the information remaining available in search results. Basically they need to decide if something has the “right to be forgotten” weighed against the “public’s right to know”. [Google’s Transparency Report]

How does it work:

The person or company submits their request through a form. They may or may not be asked for more information via email. The request then goes to a team of trained staff in Dublin Ireland who decide if it qualifies to be indexed or not. If the submission is rejected, the submitter can appeal to a local data protection authority. At that point the chances are smaller.

A few key things to know:

  • Less than half of requests end up being deindexed (44% in all of EU)
    • 729,921 requests have been submitted requesting to remove a total of 2,780,282 URLS
  • Each request is evaluated on a case by case basis and many get rejected simply because of administrative mistakes from the person who submitted them: One of the biggest reasons something gets rejected for deindexing is because the form didn’t include the right or necessary information. In fact, over a quarter don’t even get considered because of this.
  • Even if submitted correctly, most are rejected because Google considers them in the public interest or does not consider them  “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive.”

    • They are very unlikely to delist anything political, criminal or professional in nature–including professional wrongdoing– or anything showing up on government or news sites (despite being the most requested since they are the most damaging). If you fall into this category it is unlikely to bear any fruit even though this causes the most long term issues.
    • Google is only likely to deindex directories or social media sites that contain personal or sensitive personal information, which aren’t usually damaging and are relatively easy for someone to delete on their own (our software makes it way easier than this process).
  • If something is de-indexed it’s not removed from Google Searches fullstop
    • People Googling you from outside the EU will still access it.
    • Results will still show up for queries outside of just [Your Name]. For example, they would still show up if someone where to search [Your Name + Company].

In essence, Right to be Forgotten is more a gesture from the EU acknowledging the impact reputation has on someone’s livelihood and the growing problem than it is an effective way to actually deal with the problem.