The death of the online reputation industry?
A dramatic ruling was handed down by the European Union court a few days ago (on May 13th 2014) against Google. It was a ruling on the case called the ‘right to be forgotten’. The ruling was that Google MUST amend its search if anyone requests it, if there are results that show up that are either ‘outdated’ or ‘irrelevant’. Some have interpreted this ruling as the death of the online reputation management (ORM) industry which has made a business of pushing down unwanted (or negative) results for companies and individuals so they have a more positive reputation when being searched on Google.
As someone who works in the ORM industry I can tell you that I don’t see the ruling as such a big deal for a number of reasons:
- It is only EU based, meaning that if a person or company have unwanted results in other geographic locations such as the US on Google.com, in Australia on Google.com.au etc, then this ruling wouldn’t bring about any change in those results.
- The ruling only relates to specific cases for individuals (not companies or brands) and only if they can prove the unwanted results are ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. Most ORM work is based around pushing down unwanted results that do not fall into these 2 categories.
- The terms ‘outdated’ and ‘irrelevant’ are very general and are open to a wide spectrum of interpretation. Who will decide what results do fall under this classification and does it mean that each request will go to court and play out over a number of years and be publicized in the media as has been with this case?
- Google will no doubt appeal this ruling and the court case for the final decision will drag out for a number of years before another verdict is handed down. Google’s current response to the verdict is surprise and anger but officially they have said the ruling was “disappointing”.
- It is unclear how Google will handle the flood of requests that are expected to pour in. this will further slowing down the implementation of this verdict. I imagine Google will have to build some kind of online request form and each request will have to be handled manually by a trained team of lawyers which does not seem like it will move quickly.
- There is no clear timeline forcing Google to implement the changes to the results pages within a certain amount of time from when the request was made by the individual.
- One of the most serious outcomes of the ruling is that it raises serious concerns for expression of free speech which means there is a high likelihood the verdict will be over turned or amended significantly to ensure individuals cant suppress what other choose to say and publish online.
A bit about the case
Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spaniard complained that a search of his personal name on Google displayed some newspaper articles from around 16 years ago when he sold properties he owned to pay back a debt. He claimed that these results were outdated and no longer relevant.
Details from the EU court ruling
The court’s ruling says that data that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed”. I think you now see what my point number three above about the ruling being ambiguously termed.
The fact of the matter is that these events did happen to Gonzalez. That’s why anti-censorship groups are screaming right now about this ruling. Interestingly, by making this legal case against Google, Gonzalez’s name and the incident is now splashed over the front pages of many search results pages, plus is in all the media. The only thing he did succeed in doing was to create more results about the properties he sold thus bringing it to even more people’s attention. So I’ll leave you with a clip of the sweet words of Alanis Morissette ‘Ironic’.