Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The Right to be Forgotten

Much has been written in the weeks since the European Union Court of Justice ruled that people had a ‘right to be forgotten’ on the internet. The case focussed on a man who had previously been declared bankrupt, but no longer wanted search engine results pages for his name to return links mentioning this.

It’s been controversial, to say the least, with Wikimedia’s Jimmy Wales being one of its most vocal critics. I, on the other hand, broadly agree with it.

In the specific case that the court ruled on, the bankruptcy that the man wanted removing from search engines was some time ago, and was no longer relevant. If someone, such as a prospective employer, searched for his name, they would see an outdated picture that would imply that this person was financially irresponsible. I’m guessing the situation now is different, seeing how this has gone all of the way to the EUCoJ, which must have cost a fair amount of money. I therefore think it’s fair that such search results are repressed.

We already do this with criminal convictions. For all but the most serious offences, convictions eventually become ‘spent’, and no longer show up on regular criminal records checks though the Disclosure and Barring Service. This is to aid the rehabilitation of past offenders back into society; those that commit one minor offence will eventually see this become spent. Provided they commit no further offences, historical convictions should not be a barrier to most careers. Enhanced checks that take place for jobs involving work with young or vulnerable people will still show these spent convictions, however, no matter how old they are. More information about how long it takes for convictions to become spent is here.

Now, imagine this situation. A 14 year old is given a 3 month prison sentence. The conviction becomes ‘spent’ nine months after sentencing. Following their time in prison, the youngster reforms their ways, stops hanging around with inappropriate peers, and focusses on their schoolwork. They get good grades, and do well at university – the university is unaware of the conviction as a declaration of spent convictions is not required for this course. They graduate with good honours at age 21, and apply for a graduate job. The employer does an internet search for the candidate’s name, and finds news articles about the prison sentence from seven years ago, and decides not to employ the candidate.

Is this fair? I don’t think it is. The example I gave above is broadly adapted from a true story of someone who was turned down for a place at medical school for a spent conviction.

In my view, a spent conviction from several years ago – especially if for an offence committed under the age of 18, and if there have been no subsequent convictions – shouldn’t show up in search results. Organisations which need to access information about spent convictions can do so via the Disclosure and Barring Service; for everyone else, this information is essentially irrelevant and may have no reflection upon who the person is now. If we take the attitude that anyone who has a criminal conviction is a criminal for life, then we run the risk of these people disengaging from society again and returning to crime. If we treat people like criminals, then we shouldn’t be surprised that they become criminals again.

Even where there isn’t a criminal conviction involved, where a statement about a person is outdated and irrelevant, it shouldn’t show up against their name. However, I don’t agree with the current situation where the search engines themselves decide what should be removed, and feel this should be passed to an independent organisation such as the Office of the Information Commissioner. I absolutely agree that any request to have data removed needs to be looked it on a case-by-case basis, weighing up the individual’s privacy versus the public’s right to know about any relevant slights to their character.

More on this is available in this knowledge base article by Unlock, a charity who supports people with criminal convictions.

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