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The right to be forgotten online
Joy Martin of Internet Erasure writes on the right to be forgotten online.

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Enforced disclosure

This is a guest post by Joy Martin of  www.interneterasure.co.uk. The article first appeared in the current edition of The View Magazine. Thanks to The View for letting us reproduce it. You can get in touch with Joy at Joy.Martin@interneterasure.co.uk 

Internet Erasure

Internet Erasure grew when applicants to Ex-Seed (an employment agency for people with convictions)  were being accepted into employment. It was clear that people who were not involved in the recruitment decision used Google to checkout their new colleague customer or supplier this created problems for the employees and an increased reputational risk for employers. Many of the convictions were significantly outdated and so irrelevant. 

Led by the belief that people shouldn’t be continuously and repeatedly punished for past mistakes, we researched how we could give people back their privacy and dignity. We wanted to ensure that only those people and organisations who have a legal right to know about such highly sensitive data, as a criminal record, actually get to know.

So, we became experts at making applications to get content removed from search or from web-archives. As well as people with convictions, we have helped victims of crime who should never have been named by the media, people who have suffered online harassment, who have had historic business failures, those who had relationship problems published, mental health breakdowns and numerous other historic problems that need to be private but are exploited as ‘news’ online.

The Google Effect

The ‘Google Effect’ is more damaging than widely acknowledged. When someone with a conviction is searched there are often an excessive number of articles relating to their conviction still appearing. This then means almost every relationship that individual has, whether personal or professional, is impacted. I see on a day-to-day basis the devastating effect this has: individuals are unable to get a job because potential employers have a preconceived idea about them, discrimination from their community despite having served their punishment, relationships with friends and family destroyed and many have a seemingly hopeless future. Despite this, the main problem with the internet is that spent and historic convictions are being disclosed online and therefore undermining legislation, we call this ‘Enforced Disclosure’. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is important because it allows people to move on from their mistakes and it acknowledges the fact that at some point disclosing someone’s conviction is not justifiably required. Due to outdated online content, spent convictions are now being disclosed when someone is searched, this doesn’t allow the person to be punished and then move on, but rather the punishment continues without end often for decades in the future.

Wide-ranging impact

Simple basic necessities are also impacted by the links, individuals with damaging articles find it a lot harder to go about their day to day lives without discrimination. We have clients who struggle to find housing and finance because the search results are causing an unjustified bias towards them and their families, often as a result of entirely unrelated convictions. There are many cases of children being bullied due to their parents being researched. Some parents also tell their children to avoid associating with children of people with convictions, setting a discriminatory standard for future generations. As children of people with convictions struggle with the abandonment they feel it is not justified to place more trauma on them through the bullying they are subjected to and the second-hand discrimination they then face. As a child of someone with convictions I know just how disruptive the content can be, I want to help other families heal from the trauma and find peace with the loss they experienced when the events unfolded.

The right to be forgotten

The simplest approach to removing articles is generally by way of ‘Right to be Forgotten’ applications. This Right to be Forgotten is a legal right across the UK and EU where a data subject can apply to have links blocked from appearing in search engine results if they are inaccurate, irrelevant (no longer relevant/ out of date), excessive, inadequate or a breach of privacy. 

The Right to be Forgotten is a qualified right, it is not absolute and application may be rejected where a search engine considers the public interest outweighs the right of the individual. I should clarify that “in the public interest” should not, and does not, mean, that which the public is interested in, in a curiosity sense, but rather that which serves and benefits wider society. 

Such responses can be argued however and there is much to be gained by persisting with the search engines themselves and with the Information Commissioner (ICO).

As the Submissions Manager I complete all Right to be Forgotten applications and associated appeals to the Information Commissioner (where required). Where articles are evidentially inaccurate, breach privacy or continue to publish spent convictions (The ‘Enforced Disclosure’ I mentioned earlier), I also make direct approaches to publishers to request the editing of an article, the publication of a correction or its permanent deletion.

An individual themselves can apply to have search results delisted with the search engines and we publish a free guide at https://www.interneterasure.co.uk/free-guide.html in order to aid people with their submissions.

Case studies

Here are examples of work we have undertaken:

  1. We have successfully removed content for an individual that was convicted of benefit fraud because it was no longer relevant. They were claiming benefits due to an illness but worked occasionally. The individual received a criminal conviction and went to prison. It had been a decade since their release and their conviction was legally spent. I submitted requests to the search engines on the above grounds as well as the articles being inaccurate in part. We successfully removed all links that appeared when searching his name on Google, Bing and Yahoo. A quick google search will now not bring up their private conviction, they now have a chance to rebuild their life fully and live without discrimination.

 

  1. As a result of some unpaid debt an individual received a criminal conviction a decade ago, of a suspended sentence. The article was still damaging her life greatly so she instructed Internet Erasure to remove the links. Her conviction is now legally spent and publishing of the article is therefore no longer relevant or justified. Through the Right to be Forgotten, we successfully removed the article from Google within 2 weeks. We then decided to make direct approaches to the newspaper to have the article permanently deleted, arguing it was no longer relevant. Within ten minutes the company agreed to delete the article permanently and now this highly private information will no longer haunt her. She can live in peace and move on with her life knowing that no one can discriminate against her based on a troubled past anymore.

 

  1. I successfully removed more than 80 links regarding a false accusation from Google that was devastating a young individual’s life. Despite them being proven innocent, the articles were still very prominent online and they were consistently discriminated against as a result. Data regarding criminal accusations is highly sensitive and under GDPR’s is supposed to be handled with greater sensitivity. There are a lot more grounds for removing this content because the presence of it often leads to an infringement on individual’s rights and can lead to severe discrimination and abuse. The individual could not recover from the trauma of the events nor begin to rebuild their life; thanks to Internet Erasure they have a chance to move on.

 

  1. One of my clients was being harassed online and despite the individual doing the harassment being ordered by the police to remove the content there were still a significant number of links appearing on search engines. After two months of working on their case all damaging content from Google, Bing and Yahoo have been successfully delisted. The individual can now move on and recover from this period of time.
  2. We worked for a couple in which one had a past conviction and their partner became a victim of alarming publicity. The individual received a conviction when they were very young and there were a vast number of links relating to the events. We successfully removed a significant amount of his links from Google because they were not relevant nor adequately reflected him as an individual- who is now an adult. When they got married the couple faced a huge amount of publicity and the wife’s name was slandered on the internet. She was left in a very vulnerable position and was the object of abuse because of this. Personal information was shared about them and their wedding photos were leaked to the national press. This had a devastating impact on them both because he completed his sentence years ago and should not continue to be punished when he is trying to rebuild his life. I worked on both their cases and successfully removed all of the links relating to her name and a significant majority of his.

Changing the law

I believe more legislation surrounding what is allowed to be published about convictions needs to be developed. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act must be absolute. I do not believe that anyone’s spent convictions should be disclosed online no matter the case and this must be completely enforceable.

Further legislation to keep the public safe, like Sarah’s Law and Clare’s law, is required because this targets the unfounded argument that the public always need to know, whilst allowing more acceptance for people with convictions.

Not allowing someone to serve their punishment and move forward will lead to higher rates of reoffending in the long-term; because individuals cannot see a future after prison if they are continuously abused and shunned from society. 17% of the population in the UK are people with convictions, it is clear they must have the same opportunities as everyone and it is outdated to suggest that rehabilitation isn’t entirely possible.

No spent or historic conviction should be disclosed online and anything related to a criminal accusation must be removed because it is not justified to ruin someone’s life over something that is not proven or a false accusation.

Historic articles should be anonymised if an individual has proven they have lived a crime free life and are rehabilitated from their conviction, even if it can never been spent, when enough time has passed.

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