The ‘google effect’, internet search results and the right to be forgotten

Aim of this page

In May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that individuals should be able to request the deletion or removal of personal data published online where there is no compelling reason for it to remain. This right to erasure is often referred to as ‘the right to be forgotten’.

This page sets out how to request the removal of online information and how you can appeal the decision if an online search engine refuses your request.

This is part of our section on information on the internet.

Why is this important?

Once your conviction is spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, there is no legal obligation for you to disclose it when applying for the majority of jobs. However, information on the internet can stay around, long after a conviction becomes spent.

We’re aware that some employers will do ‘Google’ searches as a way of informally checking someone’s criminal record. If there are stories on the internet which relate to your conviction, an employer may be able to find out more about you than they are legally entitled to know.

If you’re aware of any links to your name on the internet and your conviction is spent, it’s definitely worth applying to have the links removed. If your application is successful, then you can be confident that any future employer or work colleague who searches for you name on the internet, won’t be able to find any information relating to your criminal record.

Introduction

In May 2014, Google launched a system whereby individuals can request information about them be removed from Google’s search results. This came about because of a ruling on the 13th May by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The case was brought by a Spanish man who complained that an auction notice of his repossessed home on Google’s search results infringed his privacy. The court found in his favour, which has already had wide-reaching consequences for search engines like Google.

The ruling only covers the removing of the search results – the information will still exist on the website that published the original article but Google won’t be able to deliver matches to some enquiries that are entered. Deletion of the original information would still be the responsibility of the website owner, and in our experience, it’s very rare that websites agree to remove details relating to convictions (see more in reporting of criminal records in the media).

Information will only disappear from searches made in Europe. Queries piped through its sites outside the EU will still show the relevant search results.

However, many people are still seeing the ruling as a potential way of dealing with the ‘google-effect’ that often haunts people for lots of different reasons, and our Helpline and Forum have already seen this being raised by quite a few people when it comes to past convictions that have been reported online. So the important question for us is whether it will actually help people with convictions?

Is it likely to help people with convictions?

At the moment, the answer is that we simply don’t know. That’s why we want to encourage people with spent convictions to submit a request (see ‘What next’ below) to see how Google are dealing with requests like this.

Google itself has admitted that their system is their “initial effort” at complying with the Court’s judgement, and there’s little evidence of how they’re dealing with individual applications. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the judgement surprised many people, including Google themselves, and initial reports suggest that they’re being swamped with requests, with some suggesting that Google has been receiving over 10,000 requests per day. The ruling applies to other search engines too (e.g. Yahoo, Bing).

Google has said that information would start to be removed from mid-June and that decisions about data removal would be made by people rather than an algorithm which governs almost every part of Google’s search system.

In July 2014 Google removed a link to a story about an archaeology specialist who had received a conviction for shoplifting in May 2006.  Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, his conviction became spent in May 2008.  The individual had previously complained to the Press Complaints Commission in 2010 and despite two factual amendments being made, his case was dismissed by the PCC. He applied to Google in Summer 2014 and his request was granted.
Between May and October 2014, Google fielded requests from the UK to de-link some 18,304 websites; it has removed approximately 35% of requested URL’s.

Google’s system

They’ve specifically stated that, when looking whether to remove a search result, they’ll look at whether there’s a public interest in the information, and they mention criminal convictions in particular. At this point, it’s unclear how Google is making a decision about whether to approve a request that is made. The court ruling told Google it needed to provide users with an option to erase search results that were “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” but also “outdated”.

From our point of view, we strongly believe that once a conviction is spent, this should be removed from the internet (on request). Otherwise, protections that are afforded under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act are undermined.

It’s highly unlikely that Google will be willing to remove search results that relate to unspent criminal convictions. It is more likely where a conviction is spent, but at the time of writing, we’re unaware of any successful case where Google has agreed to remove search results relating to spent convictions.

The Information Commissioners Office view

The ICO themselves are looking at what this means for people in the UK.  In a recent blog post, a particular point they made was that;

“It is also important to remember that the exemption for journalism, art and literature under section 32 of the Data Protection Act can be applied by media organisations, bloggers and other publishers of information, depending on the circumstances. What this is not, then, is a full or absolute ‘right to be forgotten’.”

This casts doubt over to what extend Google (and others) will remove details such as convictions, where media organisations have claimed a legitimate exemption of the basis of journalism.

The Article 29 Working Party (which the ICO is part of) published Guidelines on the implementation of the Courts judgement, which gives a good indication as to how the ICO will treat complaints that it deals with. The ICO has also published their search result delisting criteria.

Making an application to Google

As part of Google’s current system, you have to do a couple of things.

Firstly, you have to provide the URL links for each link appearing in a Google search.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, you have to explain why the search result is “irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate”. At the moment, the clearest argument is that your convictions are spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and so in most cases, you can treat it as if it had never happened. You should look to put forward any other reasons why you think it meets the definition of “irrelevant, outdated or inappropriate”. Until we begin to see examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t, it’s difficult to give much more guidance at this stage.

Thirdly, you have to provide proof of your identity. Some people have expressed concern to us about this last point. However, we have no reason to think that this should put people off – ultimately, if you’re information is already available online, this application process cannot make things worse!

We have devised a search engine removal request template which can be used as a guide to completing the online form.

If you’re interested in making an application to Google, the online form is available here.

What next? Submit a request and see what they say!

We’re keen to see how Google are dealing with applications from people with convictions.

To do this, we’re encouraging people with spent convictions to complete Google’s online form, and get a decision from them. Bear in mind that they’re dealing with a lot of applications at the moment, so there might be quite a wait before you get a decision.

Once you receive a decision, please forward it to us to let us know what their decision is and why. You can forward their reply to us by sending it to policy@unlock.org.uk (we won’t share your personal details externally). This will help us to collect evidence of how Google are dealing with requests from people with convictions, and help us to improve the information and advice we’re giving on this issue.

Reporting a concern to the Information Commissioners Office

Once you have a decision from Google, if they refuse your application, we would advise people to make a complaint to the Information Commissioners Office. Again, as it’s a new system, it’s unclear how the ICO is going to deal with these types of complaints. They have published a blog post in which they say that they’ll be looking for “evidence of damage and distress to individuals” when reviewing complaints about Google and others’ search results.

What will the ICO do?

If you decide to make a complaint to the ICO regarding Google’s refusal to remove a link then, the ICO will consider your request based on a set of criteria. If they believe that any links should be removed they will contact Google and ask them to de-list the information. Google will either agree with the ICO removing the link or refuse and refer back to the ICO.

If Google inform the ICO that they are refusing to remove a link after a request is made, the ICO will review the matter under their case review process with the involvement of senior colleagues, taking into account all of the circumstances of the case and arguments presented by all parties in order to decide whether the original decision was correct.

Where the ICO agrees with Google and decides that the link does not have to be removed from their search engine, you can still make an application to the court under section 10(4) of the Data Protection Act 1998, to seek an order requiring an organisation to cease processing your personal data where it is causing substantial damage or distress which is unwarranted. The court would reach its own view as to whether the information in the search result is your personal data. If you pursue this option you may wish to seek independent legal advice.

Having reviewed the overall circumstances of the case, we have concluded that it is appropriate to amend our assessment and we consider the search results likely to comply with the Data Protection Act. Therefore the ICO will not be requiring Google to delist the search results.

Although we recognise that the conviction is now deemed ‘spent’ for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and we take this into account, we must also consider the public interest in the availability of information about criminal convictions. Our published criteria explain that we are less likely to require the delisting of information about serious offences, and we consider sex offences involving minors to fall into this category.

While a number of years have passed since the conviction, we consider there to be a significant degree of public interest in the availability of information about convictions of this nature and on balance we consider this to mean the information in the search results remains relevant. In reaching this view, we also take account of the fact that you held a position of trust at the time the offences took place.

We recognise that the availability of the search results may be detrimental to you, but the right to have search results delisted is not absolute and does not necessarily entitle individuals to have negative information about them removed. When reaching decisions we must also take into consideration the relevance of the information to the public interest, which in this case we consider to be significant for the reasons I have explained. We have concluded that the original decision provided to you did not adequately take account of these factors.

Whilst the above refers to a sex offence, this does not mean you cannot apply to have your link removed if you have a spent conviction for a sex offence. You need to be aware that under ‘public interest’ a decision could be made that will result in your application to have your link removed declined.

Other ways of dealing with the Google-effect

This problem isn’t new, and regardless of this new system, many people with convictions will continue to experience difficulties because of their convictions being reported online.

One option that some people look at is changing their name. Although this doesn’t get you away from your criminal record (because if an employer does a criminal record check, depending on whether your convictions are spent, and depending on the level of check, it will still come back) it does prevent people from getting access to information that they would otherwise not be allowed to (e.g. spent convictions if the job is covered by the ROA).

Another option that some people look at is trying to flood the internet with alternative, positive, stories about them, to ‘force down’ the reports that relate to their convictions.

Online reputation repair companies

There are many companies offering services to repair your online profile by replacing negative search results with positive coverage. These can be very expensive, often tying you in to long term contracts and only doing what you can do yourself.

If you’ve used one of these companies we’d like to hear from you. Tell us about your experiences by emailing feedback.unlock@outlook.com

Personal experiences

The personal stories below have been posted on theRecord, our online magazine.

Success with dealing with the ‘google-effect’ – Sam explains how her life has been turned around since Google agreed to remove links to her name

Discuss this with others

Read and share your experiences on our online forum.

Key sections include:

Below you will find links to useful websites relating to this page. More specific details (including addresses and telephone numbers) of some of the organisations listed below can be found here.

More information

  1. For practical information – More information on changing your name and counteracting negative ‘Google’ or other internet search information
  2. To read personal stories – You can read stories about this posted on theRecord, our online magazine, under the tag of ‘google-effect’
  3. To discuss this issue with others – Read and share your experiences on our online forum
  4. Our policy workRead about the policy work we’re doing on this issue
  5. Questions – If you have any questions about this, you can contact our helpline.

Get involved

Help us to add value to this information. You can:

  1. Comment on this page below
  2. Send your feedback directly to us
  3. Discuss your views and experiences with others on our online forum
  4. Share your personal story by contributing to our online magazine
  5. Help our policy work – Stopping the ‘Google-effect for people with spent convictions.
This page was last fully reviewed and updated in February 2017. If you’ve spotted something that needs updating, please let us know by emailing the details to advice@unlock.org.uk

 

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  • jim watson

    I was in a similar position but the disclosure I made was in relation to an outstanding matter in a court. I explained that the arrest was for a political protest, that it was unwarranted and unfair and that I fully expected to be exonerated and also pointing out the fact that I am innocent until proven otherwise…

    I received an email back stating that it was this outstanding that prevented access although I would be welcome to apply for next years intake. Suffice to say that one year on and the court process still is not over…

    However, three weeks after the knock back the institution concerned did employ me as an associate lecturer to talk to a class of social work students for a couple of hours…