Death of a Mentor and the Right to be Forgotten

The Internet is forever – even if you’re not.

Frank-Heydenrych-640

Frank Heydenrych (Photo: http://www.techcentral.co.za)

On the LinkedIn page of my business, you will see a recommendation by someone by the name of Frank Heydenrych. While I was updating my LinkedIn profile recently, I wanted to refresh my contact with Frank – as one should, if people recommend you. When I tried to get in touch I had a rather unpleasant wake-up call: he had died in September 2013 at the young age of 55, by some accounts due to a brain hemorrhage. Thinking that I should only use current recommendations, I realized it was impossible for me to remove his recommendation from my site, since only his relatives can do it, and Frank’s on-line presence is still live (even today). That clearly brought up the problems of the Internet being forever.

Almost a year after his death, look what’s still live out there:

  • Frank’s Facebook page
  • Frank’s Twitter page
  • Frank’s Blog
  • Frank’s LinkedIn profile [Update: Jun2, 20, 2016 – Frank’s LinkedIn account has finally been disabled]
  • Frank’s last post, a few days before his death, on his local community site, on the discovery of life beyond the solar system
  • And of course the obituaries and memorials:

“I remember Frank, up on the first floor of the building on Jan Smuts Avenue [in Johannesburg]. He was someone to be feared – at least, I feared him. He had a reputation from the people up on the ComputerWeek floor of being a bit of a tyrant. Actually, as I later discovered, he was just a stickler for getting the facts straight, an old-school journalist who loved hunting down a good story. He had no time for BS. Frank had a nose for news. And he gave many young journalists, including me, a solid grounding in the trade.” – TechCentral editor Duncan McLeod

And that’s just a small selection of what remains out there from and about Frank. Which goes to show: the stuff you put on the Internet – photos, tweets, pages posts, etc., are there forever unless you make a very specific attempt to remove them. This is the harsh reality and the very opposite of how human memory works. It is very hard to be forgotten on the Internet. This is good for people doing brand-building and content marketing, but bad for people who, for one reason or another, do not want to be found.

In the June 2014 Forbes Magazine, columnist Joseph Steinberg noted that “many privacy protections that Americans believe that they enjoy – even some guaranteed by law – have, in fact, been eroded or even obliterated by technological advances.” Steinberg – in explaining the need for legislation guaranteeing the “Right to be Forgotten” – noted that existing laws that require adverse information to be removed from credit reports after a period of time, and that allow the sealing or expunging of criminals records, are effectively undermined by the ability of prospective lenders or employers to forever find the removed information in a matter of seconds by doing a Google search, for instance.

The Right to be Forgotten when you’re alive

The Right to be Forgotten “reflects the claim of an individual to have certain data deleted so that third persons can no longer trace them.” It has been defined as “the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring.” The Right to be Forgotten leads to allowing individuals to have information, videos or photographs about themselves deleted from certain internet records so that they cannot be found by search engines. In a landmark decision, the European Union’s highest court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU; French: Cour de justice de l’ Union européenne), ruled in May 2014 that Europeans can successfully order search engine companies like Google to delete sensitive information from their search results.

Think of it this way: – a company CEO does bad things. His company goes bankrupt. He starts again under a new name. But his name gets associated with the bankruptcy and the scandal into perpetuity. The man wants his name and the name of his company cleaned up. What does he do?   Ask Google to delete the information. If he were a European citizen he might have some luck. In the US – I reckon his chances won’t be so good.

The Right to be Forgotten has been put into practice in the European Union, particularly France, and Argentina. There has been considerable controversy about the practicality of establishing, and then enforcing, a Right to be Forgotten, due to concerns about:

  • Impact on the Right to Freedom of Expression
  • Interaction with the Right to Privacy
  • Whether creating a Right to be Forgotten would decrease the quality of the Internet through censorship and a rewriting of history
  • Concerns about negative Google search listings remaining an unduly prominent part of a person’s internet, or public, profile

Deletion from Google

This development has highlighted the fact that Google is by far the most powerful search engine in the world, and its existence has influenced business and society in more ways that even the Google founders could ever have predicted. Yahoo and Bing, though with much fewer users, have also implemented the CJEU’s decision. The reported numbers vary, but at August 2014 Google had received more than 91,000 requests to delete 328,000 links. Google has reportedly complied with around half of these deletion requests.

When a link has been removed, Google algorithmically adds a blanket notification stating that “some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” But even with the removals, links that are inevitably lost to Europeans, will still be available in the United States and elsewhere.

Most of these deletion requests are due to copyright violations and the implementation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Proving the point, if ironically, an article in the Guardian on Google launching the “right to be forgotten” with a web form, states that it has been removed because “our copyright has expired.”

Due to privacy violations, many content items have been removed long before the Right to be Forgotten came into existence, due to court orders and policy requests, often because of defamation and privacy accusations.

Some case histories

Wolfgang Werlé and the Streisand Effect

In October 2009, lawyers for Wolfgang Werlé, who had been convicted of murder, sent the Wikimedia Foundation a cease-and-desist letter requesting that Werlé’s name be removed from an English language Wikipedia article referencing his victim. Both Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber, also implicated in the murder, were out of prison and sued Wikipedia. The dispute centred around German privacy law vs. the American First Amendment, and the publication and deletion of Werlé’s name in the German version of the Wikipedia article, vs. his name in the American (English) version of the article. German courts allow the suppression of a criminal’s name in news accounts once he has paid his debt to society, noted Alexander H. Stopp, (his name means “stop” in German) the lawyer for the two men, who are now out of prison.

Between the German, Austrian and American courts and service providers, the case did the rounds from through 2008 and 2009. The case was complicated due to the fact that Wikipedia articles are freely written and updated by the public, and not by the Wikimedia Foundation. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the lawsuits have led to the Streisand Effect. (The Streisand Effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet. It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose 2003 attempt to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California inadvertently generated further publicity of it. )

German editors of Wikipedia have scrubbed the names of both men from the German-language version of the article about the victim. But today, the English Wikipedia article is still there, with a rather long string of comments, due to it focusing on the subject of the media and legal storm about the case, rather than the crime itself, and of course the issue of the Right to be Forgotten. “They should be able to go on and be resocialized, and lead a life without being publicly stigmatized” for their crime, Stopp had said. “A criminal has a right to privacy, too, and a right to be left alone.” (I thought it rather quaint that he had called his client a criminal, in so many words.)

So now Werlé’s name is recorded but for different reasons. In this instance, he just cannot be forgotten. And in a teeny tiny way, by my mentioning his case in this post, he has become even less forgettable.

Gonzáles and the problem with archived info

In May 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled against Google in Spain, in a case brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González. It’s fascinating stuff: – On January 19th, 1998, the newspaper La Vanguardia published (in its 23rd page) a regular auction listing from the Labour Ministry with all the property seized by the Social Security Department, including Mr. Gonzáles. Then, decades later, La Vanguardia decided to digitize its archived editions. They did a really good job. And voilà! Mr. González’s old business trouble was easy to be found by all and sundry.  After some toing and froing between agencies on the finer points of the law, the CJEU ruled that search engines are responsible for the content they point to and thus, Google was required to comply with EU data privacy laws.

And now it gets weird

In a textbook case of Right to be Forgotten Fail, the owners of Amy’s Baking Company, who had had a bad show in Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares TV series, found themselves even worse off than before the episode had aired. They might’ve thought that they would get some promotion (or help) for their restaurant. In stead, they unleashed a storm of haters, trolls and critics on the Internet. In stead of letting it go and waiting for the storm to pass, they commented right back in worse language than even their critics could muster. Result: a world of trouble and the Streisand Effect in full force. Oh dear, they even have a Wikipedia page now, and it’s not flattering.

California gives minors the right to remove online info

While, in the USA, the legal fraternity sees the premise of the Right to be Forgotten as people’s means of covering up past misdeeds that the public should know about, and attempting to rewrite history, there has been some support. In 2013, California became the first state to enact legislation permitting users under the age of 18 (minors) to delete or remove content they posted online. Presumably because teenagers do the stupidest things online. Titled the Privacy Rights for California Minors in the Digital World, SB 568, the law contains an “eraser” provision at Section 22581: “An operator of an Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application directed to minors…shall… (1) Permit a minor who is a registered user of the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application to remove or, if the operator prefers, to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted on the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application by the user.”

However, critics of the this legal provision as well as the Right to be Forgotten in general, point out that only information that can be removed by user’s request is content that they themselves uploaded – such as Facebook or Youtube contents.

The Right to be Forgotten once you’re dead

That being said, if you’re dead obviously you cannot request your information to be removed. According to 2009 Facebook rules, it’s important when someone passes away that their friends or family contact Facebook to request that a profile be memorialized. Facebook does require proof before memorializing or deleting a profile. Family or friends must fill out a form, providing a link to an obituary or other information confirming a user’s death, before the profile is officially memorialized. Once that is completed, the user will cease showing up in Facebook’s suggestions, and information like status updates won’t show up in Facebook’s news feed, the stream of real-time user updates that is the site’s centrepiece. If relatives prefer not to have the profile stand as an online memorial, Facebook says it will remove the account altogether.

So obviously, like all intellectual intangible property, your internet presence is part of your personal brand, and after you have died, this has to be dealt with. And unless you tell your relatives ahead of time that you have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Panoramia pages, or x number of blogs, they won’t know and you’ll be there forever, warts and all. And someone had better have all your account names and user names and passwords.

If you really care about the people you leave behind, make sure that you leave that stuff that does not need to be erased or forgotten. If what you put out there is fine, and your relatives will enjoy reading your blogs and contacting your friends and looking at your photos – great. It’s like an online photo album, diary or memorial. If you had had great achievements, your ideas, writing, art, discoveries or scientific investigations will still be there for others to learn from.

On the other hand, if you posted some cringe-worthy selfies in a moment of insanity that will be revealed your family after you’re gone, or if you were guilty in a past life of crazy rants online and “likes” of less than salubrious things, you’d better take care of business while you have the chance.

(And you’re saying to yourself: “I have nothing at all to delete.” But have you googled yourself lately? All the entries? Really?)

The trick to being forgotten

Captain John Smith, from a 1616 portrait, top of the search results for “John Smith” on Google.

Captain John Smith, from a 1616 portrait, top of the search results for “John Smith” on Google.

If you really need to be forgotten in your lifetime, or want to reinvent yourself or put the past behind you, here’s my advice to being forgotten on the Internet. Thank goodness I’ve never had to do this. Here’s a Wiki-how on how to completely delete yourself from the Internet: http://www.wikihow.com/Delete-Yourself-from-the-Internet

It looks, by all accounts, like a tremendously laborious process. Ironically, there are lots of articles on the internet on how to do this. By lodging requests and deleting information you’ll probably create a new electronic trail. There’s that Streisand Effect again…

  • Step by step, clean up and close down all the places where information about you feature on the Internet. It will take some time and you will have to outsmart a lot of algorithms. Everything, literally everything is linked. It’s called the Internet.
  • Do nothing. The fewer hits you get, the lower you will sink on the Google list of search items about you.
  • Get off the web entirely. Stop communicating electronically. Become a Luddite.
  • Change your given name and surname to something very very common, (like John Smith – 241-million results on Google) and get lost amongst all the millions of search engine finds.
  • Don’t to it again.

Frank’s legacy

Which brings me back to Frank Heydenrych. Frank, when I knew him, was head of a PR agency (first Frank Heydenrych Communications – FHC – then Predictive Communications), specializing in Information Technology, that I worked with in no less than four of my employers. He was a genius at understanding the IT market and making sense of computing products and services. Disambiguation was his thing. He had a mind like a scalpel. He always struck me as a tense, hasty man and well he should’ve been since the industry was tough – a veritable bloodied battlefield in the 90s and early 2000s. While I thought of him as my senior mentor, he was in fact only a couple of years older than me. I really admired Frank and was – like many people – in awe of his abilities as a journalist and PR professional. Frank taught me most of what I know about PR and about writing. He was pitiless in his criticism of my attempts at writing press releases. He taught me how the industry worked and What Not to Do.

He explained – and this I’ll never forget – that dealing with the press is like having a picnic with a tiger. Everything goes fine until the tiger gets hungry and wants to eat. The very journalist whom you thought was a supporter of you and your company will have your liver with some fava beans and a good chianti if he catches you in a lie or smells a front page scandal.

As head of marketing, I once had to fire him. Later, once we had all cooled down and weathered the worst of the storm, I had to go back, hat in hand, and attempt to have our contract reinstated. Because if you wanted good PR, you used Frank Heydenrych and his team. His first words to me were: “Now, as we were saying before we were so rudely interrupted…”

As a PR man, Frank would undoubtedly have appreciated the fact that, despite him dying, he was not forgotten on the Internet.

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