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France ponders right-to-forget law

By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

News article
Some net users are turning to social media websites for revenge

Social networking websites have ensured that everyone who has an opinion can put it out in the public domain.

From Britney Spears's musings to the Tiger Woods scandal, information can take a life of its own once it hits the world wide web.

B-list celebs and brand-names bustling for public attention can be particularly vulnerable to people with a gripe against them.

Alberic Guigou from online reputation management firm Reputation Squad said many people were becoming public figures on the internet.

"They are being on Facebook, on Twitter. They are communicating a lot of information about themselves," he said.

"But the issue is that a lot of people also remain anonymous. They take advantage of that to ruin other people's reputations," he said.


The impact of all those online revelations has made France consider the length of time that personal information should remain available in the public arena.

A proposed law in the country would give net users the option to have old data about themselves deleted.

This right-to-forget would force online and mobile firms to dispose of e-mails and text messages after an agreed length of time or on the request of the individual concerned.

Divina Frau-Meigs, Professor of American Studies and Media Sociology at the Paris Sorbonne University, believes the law would counter against unguarded communications becoming an official record.

Alberic Guigou, Reputation Squad
Alberic Guigou said action needs to be taken to counter negative press

"This debate is also connected to the right of presumption of innocence in many ways, so that people are not found guilty even before they start on life," she explained.

"People and young people need to be protected by the State so that there is fairness in the way this protection is established," she added.

A right-to-forget could protect an individual's privacy and stop them from being permanently held to ransom by unguarded actions from their past.

'Reflect well'

Currently the only way to overcome bad publicity on the net is by countering it with good publicity.

Prof Frau-Meigs believes the manipulation of someone's online presence only benefits the wealthy and people with a vested interest in disguising their real persona.

But when people become targets of malicious rumours on the net, Mr Alberic said action had to be taken to shift away from negative comments.

"Start with defining who is responsible for the bad content. If the people are hiding… we make sure that as much as possible of the content showing up on the first pages of results on the most famous search engines are positive. We either create content from blogs to websites and videos

"Also, if they already have press articles that reflect well on their reputation, we decide to improve the ranking on the research pages of such articles," he explained.

Companies too are coming under attack from competitors pretending to be disgruntled customers leaving damaging feedback on websites such as eBay or Amazon.

Info battleground

Negative buzz sometimes originates from bloggers on specialist sites with a small, but influential following.

Google toilet video on Current.com
Current.com's video parody depicts a world with no privacy

In these instances, Didier Frochot from information management company Les Infostrateges approaches the people responsible and threatens them with legal action.

"If they don't instantly remove the litigious items, and there's always a hardcore who refuse to budge, then we have to, shall we say, insist a little harder," he said.

Mr Frochot believes the internet has become an economic and information battleground. But for the average net user, prevention is still better than cure when it comes to protecting yourself from doing something you might later regret.

Carole Gay, from the French internet providers association AFA, said search engines made finding someone's details online very easy.

"So we have to be careful what we put online. Otherwise you risk being followed by something you did in the past. You have to be vigilant, just as you do in the real world," she said.

However, Current.com's video parody of the Google toilet suggests there might also be a fundamental problem with the attitude of online companies.

The cartoon video on the news website suggests that Google's next step will be to produce toilets that can analyse everything we flush.

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