Russell felt strongly that as his conviction was spent, internet search engine links should be removed. Despite his request being refused by both the search engine and the Information Commissioners Office, Russell never gave up and his tenacity eventually paid off.
I was convicted of internet related offences under the Sexual Offences Act following online contact with teenage girls. I accepted full responsibility, expressing genuine remorse for my actions.
My case was reported in my local newspaper although it exaggerated and misrepresented the facts of the case. Mercifully, the article was taken down but not before it was copied to a very unsavoury, vigilante website.
At the beginning of 2018, I applied to an internet search engine for this link (and others) to be removed after my sentence became spent. I sent them a host of evidence including expert reports expressing the view that I was rehabilitated and did not present any risk of re-offending. I also sent key evidence from the UK police confirming that vigilante websites were not in the public interest and compromised the personal safety of the individual. This included quotes from a managing Chief Inspector who spoke of the “inevitable inaccuracies” contained within such websites. Also sent was unequivocal evidence clearly demonstrating the inaccuracy of the information in question. The internet search engine responded within 24 hours stating:
The information is still relevant and therefore in the public interest”
I asked the internet search engine to elaborate as well as confirm their position in relation to vigilante websites but was met by a generic response advising that a decision had been taken in accordance with internet ‘policies’ and my only option was to contact the webmaster. I feel that the 24-hour turnaround was too quick, and it couldn’t have been any clearer to me that they had simply not bothered to look at the evidence, preferring not to delist based on the nature of the offence alone.
After getting some advice from Unlock, I referred the matter to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). I sent them the same evidence and after a couple of months received a response which, to my dismay, endorsed the position taken by the internet search engine.
The only reason given was the nature of my conviction and even when I emailed them back with further evidence, I was once again ignored. As a last throw of the dice, I applied to the ICO for a managerial review and to cut a long story short, I was eventually able to get the ICO to acknowledge the relevant evidence provided. To the ICO’s credit, the assessing manager dealt with the matter both professionally and objectively. I suspect it will have taken some courage to go against the apparent ‘trend’ of simply saying ‘no’ and am certainly grateful to the ICO for that. By this time, the DPA 2018 and the GDPR had come into force which I was also able to use to my advantage.
Finally in September 2018 after umpteen emails, phone calls and unrelenting pressure, the ICO wrote to the internet search engine advising them that the links should be removed. I’m pleased to report that this has now taken place.
The moral of the story is:
Where there’s a will, there is a way”
I hope my story can provide some help and comfort to individuals in a similar position. Below is a quick breakdown of some of the key strategies/approaches I used to force the right decision. I would say that perhaps the most important key to my success was remaining calm and controlled under repeated provocation. Evidence and facts will eventually speak for themselves and cannot be ignored forever.
- Prepare a direct response to the ICO’s Delisting Criteria
- Send any evidence (expert reports etc) relating to rehabilitation
- Reference the recent decision in the case of N1 and N2 where there is evidence of genuine remorse/rehabilitation/change of circumstances
- Reference Article 10 of the GDPR when dealing with vigilante websites holding criminal databases
- Reference Section 47 of the DPA 2018 when dealing with factual inaccuracies
- Reference Government recidivism statistics which confirm that sexual offences have the lowest rate of re-offending
- Under Article 22 of the GDPR, an internet search engine must provide “compelling legitimate grounds” to justify why their right to data process outweighs your own right to removal. Simply stating that the information is ‘still relevant’ is not enough. They need to explain clearly why this requirement has been fulfilled and this is particularly the case where your personal safety is being compromised.
Remember internet search engines are not the arbiters of criminal justice and public interest. This is the job of the UK authorities. If in doubt, seek legal assistance. Good luck with your applications.
By Russell (name changed to protect identity)
A comment from Unlock
Whilst there has been some success in getting internet search engines to remove links that relate to some convictions, where the link refers to a sexual offence, internet search engines have been reluctant to remove these. This is the first case of where a link to a sexual offence has been removed but we hope that because of the case of N1 and N2, people with a spent sexual conviction will now be treated more fairly when requesting that links be removed.
- Comment – Let us know your thoughts by commenting below
- Information – We have some practical information on the ‘google-effect’, internet search results and the ‘right to be forgotten’
- Discuss this issue – There are some interesting discussions related to this issue on our online forum
- Policy work – Read about the work Unlock is doing on stopping the ‘google-effect’ for people with spent convictions.