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Will Google’s Right to be Forgotten help you protect your brand’s reputation?

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‘Image courtesy of charlene McBride on Flickr’

It would have been music to the ears of those with reputation management needs – and their advisors – across the UK and Europe.

The so-called Google Right to be Forgotten, on the face of it, seemed to be the answer to the problem of damaging articles on the web.

In May, the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, ruled that individuals had the right to request the removal of search results linking to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” personal data – even if the information had been published legally.

Google responded by inviting those who believed they had an issue, to request, via an online form, removal of articles from its European searches.

This brought a flood of requests within days. The Sunday Times reported 50,000 had been made by the end of June month.

Among those who have made take down requests were an MP seeking re-election and an actor wanting details of an affair with a teenager.

The number of requests will keep rising.

The reason for this is this: when it comes to reputation, the Internet really is everything.

Businesses are “Googled” by prospective customers, investors or business partners every day.

The power of the Internet means one negative story can morph, multiply and regenerate into dozens. The louder the shout, the bigger the echo.

And long gone are the days when newspapers were the only publications to worry about the influence of the blogger increases daily.

A negative story on Google can be disaster – an often indelible, ugly, worldwide blot on your copybook. Therefore, the power to remove would be gold dust.

But businesses and individuals with an issue need to be aware – Google’s ‘Right to Remove’ is not the panacea for all online reputation ills.

It is already meeting with resistance. One high-profile incident, involving a blog post by the respected BBC journalist Robert Peston, has sparked on-going debate. Peston’s piece, on a prominent figure in investment banking, was removed by Google.

Mr Peston said Google had in effect removed his article from the public record, “given that Google is the route to information and stories for most people”.

This, and other incidents, sparked a censorship debate which has reportedly led to Google now turning down a great number of requests, many of which it can be assumed will have good reason. There have been examples cited where applications by criminals have been turned down, as have those by public officials.

Google has appointed an advisory committee to advise on applications. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) expects to receive complaints “soon” from people who have had requests to remove personal details from Google’s index of links turned down.

While the debate continues, one thing remains abundantly clear –the need for expert advice on reputation management issues remains as strong as ever. The need for PR advice in this area is as strong as it was before Google’s Right to be Forgotten.

The process of complaining to Google itself will need guidance and not every negative story will be able to be removed. Indeed, journalistic articles will be protected more than items such as comments or blog posts. Google has denied it is striking out links and articles simply to make a point (remember it opposed the original European court ruling).

Leading media lawyers who work regularly with PHA tell us they already dealt with the Google application process, with mixed results.

Chris Hutchins, a Partner at Hamlins LLP, said: “The eventual impact of this controversial decision is uncertain: Google are seeking to stir controversy by informing the media of take-downs, encouraging the argument that this is an attack on freedom of expression.

“The decision of the European Court is not the ‘magic bullet’ that some, with long-standing reputational issues, might believe it to be. It will not replace carefully constructed strategies, using UK laws controlling what can be published and careful media management by specialist PRs”.

The message is that if you hold a belief that a story which unfairly causes you harm can later be removed quite easily through this new route, then think again. This is a false sense of security.

At PHA Media, strategies of dealing with online reputation management are used every day for clients, and involve a number of strands of activity deployed by our experts and using our extensive and unrivalled legal network.

The Google Right to be Forgotten process is included, but any PR agency or indeed client would be foolish to believe it should end there.

The first step is to obviously stop harmful stories being published on the web. If they are, the next step is to stop them spreading, and to make sure they are as balanced.

We have achieved this for dozens of clients who have had a need for our services, which also include a full complement of digital services to deal with negative stories on Google.

The Right to Remove debate will rage on and there will no doubt be further controversies. But the advice for is those with issues with Google, while the true picture is still murky, is to continue to seek the help of the experts. For more information or to get in touch with our crisis team click here

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