What Does ‘The Right to Be Forgotten’ Mean for PR and Privacy?

The more technology evolves, the more privacy issues grow. In the latest General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) saga, the “right to be forgotten” took down an Italian journalist’s website, PrimaDaNoi, altering the family’s life and livelihood. 

While Europe holds responsibility for the creation of GDPR regulations, ripple effects can be felt around the world. “The right to be forgotten” allows the public to request a company remove content deemed as inaccurate or old, usually putting the subject in a poor light. These requests can be based on varying levels of offense, and without strict regulation could wreak havoc on not only the free press, but the heartbeat of content configuration—the Google search. 

If a company CEO crashed a car while driving drunk 20 years prior, but upheld a clean record since, should that CEO's company be allowed to hide that content from search because it may put them in a bad light? Libel and slander laws exist to control the distribution of false accusation and storytelling, but how do ethics work in the removal of historical facts from the internet? 

How Brands Can Deal

Opening the field to every company that takes issue with a negative story could be more trouble than it's worth. As they say, all public relations is good PR, and certainly moves a company’s key words up in search. Is it necessary to focus more energy on erasing negativity or put that into developing more positive tactics?

The crisis PR discipline offers brands preparation and proactive responses. But in addition to communications, search engine optimization (SEO) should be brought to the forefront as a crisis tool

Ali Haris, who formerly headed SEO at Macy’s, spoke at a PRNEWS’ Google for Communicators Boot Camp, arguing for SEO to be an “integral and immediate strategy” when developing a campaign. Creating new content to overtake negative search results can be an important reputation shield. Haris named ads, crisis-specific landing pages, searchable social channels, videos, blog posts and search-optimized press releases as the most helpful content for managing the search result narrative.

Invoking the “Forgotten”

Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal, said his firm has been watching this development closely, as clients are looking for help to manage information about their business that appears in search months and years after it has been published. 

“To date, none of our clients has petitioned to invoke the law to protect a brand or to expunge information,” Grabowski said. “A few have, however, asked Google to take down harmful content, but none has been successful in its request." 

Grabowski also mentioned that on the rare occasion his firm is asked about invoking the “right to be forgotten” law, it advises against doing so.

“All (the) situations we’ve seen likely wouldn’t meet the necessary test for legitimacy and such an action would almost certainly create adverse publicity for a client,” he said. 

“At kglobal, we continue to advocate that clients use a combination of traditional public relations, SEO and paid search engine marketing to 'flood the zone' or overwhelm negative information that is lingering online.”

Should Google Police Content?

These requests are nothing new for Google. Since 2014 the search engine said it has received more than 3.3 million requests in Europe alone to delete links from search results. Many point to news, criminal investigations and social media posts.

But why should Google, a publicly-traded corporation, dictate what ultimately counts as accurate content? Google provides the guidelines and search algorithms, but it is not a court of law. GDPR's continued global impact cries out for an intermediary or oversight committee, a digital United Nations of sorts. For now it’s best for PR professionals to continue working on proactive crisis strategies, including best SEO practices.