Some years ago a friend of mine was sent to jail. He had gotten into some serious trouble. Everyone (or almost so) turned away from him. As it often happens when a negative occasion takes place, you look around and realize you are alone. Once he had served the pre-trial detention, he was literally knocked out. The trial followed than another one, then the third degree. The result was that he was found guilty. Between the accusation and the third degree, a dozens of years had gone by and the Internet got filled up with negative news about the guy. You will think that this is quite obvious.

The reply is, yes, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that after having paid his dues to justice, this guy, that I esteem in his profession and is a very close friend of mine, asked me what he could do in order to set himself free from his past, from his mistakes.
The question was legitimate, even though I perceived my friend’s intentions as difficult to put into practice. At that time, the solution was to rely on the “net sweepers’ job”: a service aimed to “sweep out the digital identity” of a person, costing thousands of Francs monthly. Among the users of this service there were many VIPs. The companies operating in this field were mainly British. Their strategy was to push down the bad news, or the news that the client didn’t like, on the search engines, making them hardly traceable.

The objective was to push the bad news to the second or third page of the search engine, as people tend to end their researches on the very first page. It is not my intention to bother you describing the process in detail. The strategy was basically focused on creating a new reputation with fresh, positive news. It wasn’t about hiding facts but to give other, more updated news, or to tell the same story in a different way.
This is still true and valid, but today there is a new ally thanks to the Spanish judge Mario Costeja Gonzàlez. A judgment delivered by the Court of Justice of the European Union on May 13, 2014 imposed to search engines to remove links to articles or contents containing information considered no more relevant or inappropriate on behalf of certain specific users. This is the first, actual step to the Right to Be Forgotten. Only a first step, because if you look carefully all news are still there, but this doesn’t matter here.

In my opinion, what is important is that the theme is now on an agenda and this is good news for people who paid their dues to justice or for people who have been defamed unjustly and wish to leave this burden in the past. In only one month and a half, thousands of requests to claim the Right to Be Forgotten were presented in all European countries. Google launched a service through which European citizens can ask that links to search results considered to be inappropriate are canceled, with the promise to “examine each request, aiming at a balance between the right to privacy and the right to information”.

Lawyer Diego Fulco is an expert on privacy and data protection with experiences in various European multinational companies. We asked him what in fact is going to change for users, after the judgment by the Court of Justice on Google. According to Mr. Fulco “the web user will have the right to present a motivated request to the company representing the search engine in any country member of the EU so that certain information about him is no longer shown among the engine’s results”. Technically, this request is called “opposition for a legitimate reason”, meaning that the user must motivate it adequately. That means that “it is not allowed to make such a request to the research engine for a trivial matter, such as the deletion of a picture simply because the user doesn’t like the result”. It is necessary that the user explains thoroughly and in a written form for which reasons the presence of that information on the search engine’s results can damage his personal identity or dignity.

The European Regulation on privacy matters and the national implementation decrees foresee also specific cases in which the right to information and/or the right to historical research prevail on the Right to Be Forgotten. This is specifically true for information about renowned people, and the interest of the public to be informed is stronger than the right of these people to delete from the web information that can influence their reputation negatively.

Voltaire said that “Tolerance is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature”. In this context, the continuous appearance on Google pages of past follies does not help to overtake difficult moments, right or wrong they may be, and even worsening the wrong ones. Once a person paid his dues to justice or was a victim of unjust defamation, I believe we shall welcome a new approach to data protection by the side of search engines.
Another, very difficult issue in terms of rules and processing is left open: freedom of information that should – as the name itself says – be as free as possible.

Read the published version in Italian here