How to erase your past from the internet

Celebrities and regular citizens alike are increasingly hiring firms to remove damaging data New European ruling on “right to be forgotten” will help resolve unclosed cases, companies say

The European Union Court of Justice has just recognized the “right to be forgotten” online.
The European Union Court of Justice has just recognized the “right to be forgotten” online.claudio álvarea

A few years ago, a senior executive at a Spanish multinational was given a generous retirement package – so generous that it became the subject of some comment in the media. As a result, when his name was typed into internet search engines, notably Google, it was the main story that came up. He considered this a breach of his privacy, as well as a potential danger to his family, and decided to hire the services of a firm that specializes in removing data from the internet. His name is no longer associated with that story online.

The European Court of Justice last week ruled that internet search engines are required to remove links to information if the individual or entity to which they refer believes they are in breach of their privacy, or if the information is damaging to their reputation. Google has already announced that it will soon be making a tool available in Europe to remove offending links, although companies already exist in Spain offering the service. They do this by contacting the source publication in question, whether it is a newspaper, official body, blog or chat or discussion forum.

“It’s not possible to remove everything in one go – it has to be done strategically, so as not to attract attention,” explains Diego Sánchez, the president of Eliminalia, the company hired by the now-anonymous Spanish executive. “Over time, we can make any data disappear. Given a year, we could even erase Bárcenas from the web,” he says, in reference to the former treasurer of the Popular Party, who is at the center of a huge scandal involving embezzlement and fraud.

The right to be forgotten after death

Two years ago, Spain’s National Institute for Communication Technologies published a survey that reflected the public’s growing concern about internet privacy. Four out of 10 internet users said they had requested personal data to be removed from a site.

Around 42.5 percent of social network users said they had found it difficult to manage their online profile, with 7.2 percent admitting they had been unable to do so on more than one occasion. The majority, 84.4 percent, said they believed individuals had the right to remove any reference to themselves on the internet if they so wished, with only 6.7 percent saying the right to be forgotten constituted censorship and that the right to information was more important than the right to data protection.

Internet users are also worried about what happens to online information about somebody after they die. “We are seeing a growing number of customers coming to us to get data removed about a deceased loved one,” says Elisabet Baille of Voluntad Digital. “It isn’t particularly pleasant when each time you type in the name of a loved one on Google a traffic fine comes up, or an unflattering photograph, or unpleasant comments on a website or the social networks. We make those links disappear, and also help to close down accounts on social network sites that are still open,” she says. The majority of families coming to her have lost sons and daughters in the prime of life, she says, noting that there are around 30 million Facebook profiles belonging to people who have died.

“We are getting more and more cases like this. Last year we had 220 politicians who wanted to make information go away that they believed damaged their reputation. We also had 500 other distinguished clients from the world of banking and business,” he says. “There was a politician who didn’t want the world to know about his business interests, and wanted a few bothersome stories removed from the internet; others just want to give a better impression in general.” The cost of removing a piece of data can cost anywhere between €100 and €20,000, but in the case of the PP’s former treasurer, “we’d need at least €100,000,” says Sánchez.

Elisabet Baille, a partner at Voluntad Digital, believes that the European Court of Justice’s decision will help resolve cases that have so far proved impossible to close. “When the data somebody wants to hide comes from a media or official source, we contact the editor or person responsible at the organization, and get the link either removed, or their name reduced simply to their initials. But in the case of blogs or discussion forums, sometimes it is not possible to find the person responsible, and so we ask the search engine,” she says. Her company, set up about two years ago, is contacted by around 20 people a month, mostly private individuals. “Not all of them hire us, but we are seeing an increase in requests on how to remove data from the internet, now that people know it is possible to have this done.”

Anybody, not just the famous, can find themselves associated with negative information from their past. Verónica Alarcón, the legal director at Eprivacidad, another company specializing in removing data from the internet, says she has removed dozens of search engine links relating to information about people. One man was arrested for his alleged involvement with the Russian mafia: there were dozens of stories published in the media about the arrest, but none about his subsequent release after police were satisfied of his innocence.

Another customer was a priest falsely accused of child molesting. No charges were ever brought, but anybody looking him up online would see only a series of stories accusing him of pedophilia. “It was too late by the time he was found innocent: he had lost his job and was ostracized by society,” says Alarcón. “In cases such as these, the media tend to work with us. They are not going to remove material from their archives, instead they use codes that search engines cannot find.”

We are not hackers. If we can’t get something removed ourselves, we simply hand the case over to the courts”

Sometimes, however, data removal companies have to seek the help of the Data Protection Agency: Spain’s National High Court is currently assessing 220 cases of requests for Google to remove links. Alarcón says her firm and others would never remove a link from Google by subterfuge. “We are not hackers. If we can’t get something removed by talking to the parties concerned, we simply hand the case over to the courts,” she says.

In cases where somebody has deliberately uploaded information about somebody that could be damaging, data removal companies need to be particularly careful. “There are people who publish information, compromising photographs, or simply lies about their former husband or wife, or business partner, for example, to get their revenge. In such cases we have to avoid drawing any attention to the case, and have to go about things differently. For example, if these are photos or insulting articles that have been published in blogs or on social network sites, we ask the site managers to remove them, something that they usually agree to do,” says Samuel Parra, a partner at Eprivacidad.


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