— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney
Everyone has a brand. Through every interaction and impression we leave in the minds of others, each of us builds on our own personal brand. In the Internet age, and particularly with the advent of social media, our personal brands are more definable than ever. Googling anyone but the most stalwart off-the-grid enthusiast will usually provide at least a small window into the individual’s life. For this very reason, countless articles have been written about how to protect or modify one’s personal brand online. However, we can’t always control what others write about us, and online content has an unfortunate tendency to linger.
The “Right to be Forgotten” refers to a right that emerged in Europe after a European Court of Justice ruling. The court held that individuals have a right to have certain information about them removed from Google’s (or another search engine’s) search results. In Europe, a private person can fill out a form to request information that “appear[s] to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive . . . in the light of the time . . . elapsed” be removed from search results. As it currently exists in the European Union, the Right to be Forgotten does not provide for removal of the original content. It merely creates a pathway for removing the content from online search results, rendering it virtually inaccessible. To date, Google has received close to one million requests.
Recently, a ruling from a French court required Google to remove search results not only from its European search sites, such as google.fr, but from all of its sites worldwide, including the American site, google.com. The particular case related to a European citizen’s request to remove online content related to an old criminal conviction. Citing censorship concerns, Google stated that it would not comply with the ruling. (Interestingly, in a meta-gaming twist, Google has now also been ordered to remove links to news articles discussing Google’s refusal to remove the original links from its worldwide sites.)
Censorship and privacy aside for the moment, the Right to be Forgotten has major implications for personal branding. The core concept allows an individual to choose which events, posts, and opinions from the past will follow her. Consider the Oklahoma University students who were expelled after a video of their racist chant was posted online. As those students grow into adulthood and perhaps begin families and careers, articles about their misguided act will still be floating around the Web. No matter how they may grow and change, their personal brands will be tarnished for life if those articles continue to surface in a Google search. Providing those students the right to someday, as adults when the story is no longer “relevant,” remove such articles from search results, would give back a substantial power of personal branding.
Individuals born today will have their entire lives documented online—their newborn photos, their embarrassing toddler moments, their unbridled teenage angst—and without the Right to be Forgotten or something similar, that documentation will forever affect the individuals’ personal brands.
The Right to be Forgotten does not currently exist in the United States, but as we can see, European courts or other entities may seek to expand its reach to the U.S. While we watch Google struggle with the law abroad and debate potential privacy versus censorship concerns here in the States, perhaps we should also consider the right to control one’s personal brand.