Your drunken aberration should be forgotten

You may have seen news reports of a European Court of Justice ruling, saying that people “had the right to be forgotten” by Google. It’s a landmark ruling, and one that left Google seething, though it’s now complying.

Some people said it was a threat to free expression but we don’t think so — and it affects all of you reading this, in one way or another.

The case was brought against a Spanish newspaper called La Vanguardia. It published a public notice saying that a property owned by one Mario Costeja González was going to be sold off, as he was in debt. That was 2008. Mario sorted out his finances, but the public notices were visible to anyone who Googled his name.

He eventually went to court to force the newspaper to take the items off its website. The case rose up through the legal system to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of the newspaper but against Google. The search engine cannot link the items to any search for “Mario Costeja González”. The items are still on the web, you just can’t find them very easily, at least in Europe.

Now most of us don’t go bust and have property forcibly sold and you might be thinking this won’t affect you. But the European ruling also supports English law, in that we have a Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which means that certain criminal offences become “spent” after a period.

For example, you’re 18 (and an adult in law) and you’ve gone to university. You get plastered at a freshers’ ball and do something silly — steal a copper’s hat or punch a passer-by, or even drunk-drive that new car the parents bought you.

If you’re up in court and get convicted, your conviction may well be spent by the time you leave uni — conditional discharges are spent at end of the order, compensation orders (for that window you smashed) are spent when you’ve paid off the money. Driving bans are spent, as far as having to disclose it to employers, once the ban is up. Even short prison sentences can be spent after two years.

But clearly, if your case is reported in the local paper or otherwise appears on-line it may be on Google forever. When you go for that dream job at 30, your future employer may well find out that you hit a police officer, smashed a window and drove home drunk when you were 18, just by Googling your name.

We’ve actually had this at the Chron, with a man who was convicted of domestic abuse. He left the area and found that potential employers were able to find out about it. Now he can actually stop Google showing the links to the case — the story is still there, it just won’t appear in a Google search. (Google may refuse to remove links to recent court cases, even where the applicant was acquitted).

We’re writing about this because it’s interesting, but we did wonder how the land would lie should the UK leave the EU. The case in Spain that’s changed the law started off with one Spanish man taking on a local agency (the equivalent of our Information Commissioner’s Office) but once it rose to European level, one man was able to tell the almighty Google what to do. If we left Europe, would this mean the freedom to be forgotten only applied to Europeans?

***

Hopefully you saw the television show Marvellous, about the Stoke character Neil Baldwin. It was truly marvellous. Its success was such that there are now calls for his knighthood and, since it was broadcast, he’s got his own Wikipedia page.

For those who missed out, Mr Baldwin has learning difficulties but has forged a happy life for himself, partly by being eternally cheerful, but also by working voluntarily as a greeter at Keele, and as a kit-man at Stoke City.

What is remarkable is that he says he’ll do something and then does it, however unlikely, whether it’s getting a ride on the judge’s boat in the University Boat Race or befriending Gary Lineker.

It’s his outlook on life that’s led for calls for him to be knighted but it seems to us that it’s the people of Stoke/Staffs who deserve the knighthood, because it’s their universal kindness to him that’s made his life as it is.

But then we thought more: people are nice to him because he is simple, in its broadest sense. When he asks for something, that’s what he wants. His demeanour makes it clear that there’s no hidden agenda.

Most times people are not kind to each other because they’re trying to guess what the other’s thinking: What’s in it for the other person? Are they puling a fast one? How can I lose out? Indeed, people who treat others kindly or think the best of people are often said to be gullible or naïve.

The trouble is, a lot of times, the double dealing is only in our own heads. We project our own biases and selfishness onto others. They might be acting for the best or simplest of motives but we ascribe all kinds of underhandedness to them.

What Neil Baldwin shows is that people can be kind to total strangers.

They’re kind to him because it’s clear he has no hidden motives. He brings out the best in people and shows us that most people can be altruistic, once their own cynicism is put aside.

Maybe he deserves that knighthood after all.

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