The 'right to be forgotten' law is now in full swing. Google has removed more than 60,000 web links and some days it seems like every search you do has the italicised warning at the bottom of the page: Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more. Strange wording isn't it? Let's face it - some results have been removed, Google, or the italics of doom would not be there.
I wasn't surprised when I read that a total of 18,304 requests to delete content have been made from the UK since the law was introduced in May. Asking Google to delete your past is the latest craze - the new black. This is wrong isn't it? We, the general public, have the right to see everything ever written about a person because everything online is true. It's all fair and balanced and that snapshot story indicates exactly what a person is really like. Well...no. Obviously not. And therein lies the real problem and the real reason why we see the italics so frequently. Very few people get to the top without failure or discomfort along the way and unfortunately everyone is judged by their search results.
Let's, for example, take a surgeon who had performed 5,000 successful operations. Then one day in 2005 she made a mistake and the patient suffered severe health problems. The surgeon was censured by her professional body and because of the associated press coverage her long and distinguished career was ruined. Or the journalist caught up in a criminal trial ten years ago because he interviewed the high-profile criminal over a number of months. Every time the criminal was mentioned in the press the journalist was too. He lost his job. Or the charismatic millionaire entrepreneur who went bankrupt five years ago; the former broker who did six months for insider trading in 1995 and the finance director who was blamed for the collapse of a large retail business in 2002.
All the examples above are real people and real scenarios. These people exist and because the coverage follows them round on Google they can't ever escape their past. Their lives are blighted by their mistakes - forever - because the bad news stays at the top of Google and the good news is relegated to page two. Enter the 'right to be forgotten' law. But for every one piece of bad news removed from Google I hazard a guess that another 100 are not removed. Let's be honest: Google doesn't like the 'right to be forgotten' law. I don't envy them: they are in an impossible position, having to balance the interests of the upset individual against society as a whole - enforcing a law they didn't want and don't agree with.
So there is a new industry in town: Online Reputation Management. Using 'white-hat' techniques and new collateral to 'repair' the search; to rebalance the results and give the whole picture. I know something about this because we've dipped our toes into this new industry and it has caused some consternation and heated ethical debates in the office.
We've had a vast array of people approach us and, for the first time, we've had to stare our own ethical red lines in the face. We've obviously turned down hardened criminals, drug dealers and people with violent pasts - and the paedophile who contacted us was deleted from the inbox straightaway.
But the real problems have been with those individuals whose online coverage indicates they're just, well, dodgy. Where do we draw the line? With some people it's an easy decision - they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and, on balance, they did nothing wrong. But what about the borderline people? Do we take on a person who has been interviewed by the police repeatedly for white-collar crime but never charged; a person who has served a short sentence for a non-violent offence; a man who was convicted of tax evasion; a woman who knowingly and continually employed illegal immigrants?
Some of my colleagues are adamant that we shouldn't touch people with any type of criminal conviction. But I'm not so sure. I strongly believe that if you've done the time then you have the right to rehabilitate your reputation. If physical or psychological violence was involved in the crime then I'm not happy. But that leaves me with an ethical conundrum: if I believe you've paid the penalty for your violent past and been punished then surely you too are entitled to rehabilitate your reputation. I spoke to a convicted drug dealer on the phone for more than hour - and I liked him. He was genuinely repentant, had served his time in prison without incident, paid his debt to society - and desperately wanted to turn his life around. But in the end I just couldn't bring myself to take him on. Strangely, though I don't regret my decision, I do feel like I've failed him. This experience, and others, has made me re-evaluate what I thought about the 'right to be forgotten' law.
Google search results are the final judgement on a person's career and character. Whatever we read on page one of Google we interpret as being the last word on an individual's whole life; all you need to know about up to 50-odd years of working life. Simple: we just type in the name and - bingo! - Google tells us whether this is a good person or a bad person. Everyone does it. I used to do it too.
For the individual this is not such a good deal. One mess-up or even just one connection to one mess-up and suddenly you're looking forward to years of personal distress and embarrassment, not to mention potential financial ruin. And the more people click on those stories the harder they are to displace with all your good news: your new business ventures, your campaigning work, awards and charity work - all those things that make up the big picture of a real human being.
While I used to think we had the right to know everything about a person, all the gory details, freedom of speech and all that, now I'm not so sure. There are things that should be forgotten; things that before Google would have been forgotten. So rather than bemoaning that some information is now lost to us, I think it's time we all accepted that if it happened to us, we'd want it all to be forgotten too.