By now, you’ve heard about the new ruling in the European Union that allows people “the right to be forgotten” by Google search results. According to the ruling, Google can be compelled to remove pages containing data that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed”.
In this case, the man suing Google wanted to remove search results referring to his home repossession. He wanted to protect his reputation in the community. While understandable that he would like to forget this part of his past (and would like the rest of the EU to as well), it remains his history and arguably reduces his credibility in the eyes of people who know this fact about him – it affects his reputation.
In many different ways, marketing is just reputation management. As marketers, our main goal is to create a reputation for, or frame an existing reputation for, businesses in a way that allows people to trust and relate to them. There are many kinds of businesses who make money based mostly on their reputation.
For example, your son or daughter needs surgery so you go online to find the best of the best surgeons in your area. You look through their case histories to find that they have only performed successful surgery 40% of the time. Would you want them to be able to erase those statistics and associated case histories from the Internet, never to be found again?
While we can think of many companies (like the example above) that would love to start anew when it comes to protecting their business, should you be able to erase the past?
As a consumer, I think we can all agree that, especially when it comes to major purchase decisions, we want the whole story available; the good, the bad, and the ugly, to ensure that we are making an educated choice. But if one Spanish man can force the Internet to forget about an embarrassing time in his life, what’s to stop brands like Chevy from making sure that no one new finds out that they made a car that would burst into flames at any moment, only 4 years ago!? Or a chocolate company in China erasing the fact that people found worms in their candy? With this new ruling, does brand reputation even exist anymore?
A brand’s reputation is built upon history and the way that history makes people feel about a brand. But what happens when you erase that history? Are all those white papers your company has slaved over to prove to consumers that you are credible, reliable, and have done great work all for naught? With a lack of reputation control, where does it end? Should past information be available to consumers or should a reputation exist only in one’s head, each generation’s different from the last?
Maybe the right to be forgotten will become so commonplace that it will be the most modern form of reputation management, no more gray-hat than falsifying reviews. Maybe it’ll never even trickle into the business arena. All we can do at this point is speculate and keep asking questions. In this case, these questions – and MANY MORE – are as important as the answers.