Using a right to be forgotten for unwanted disclosure of religious belief

You might wish for your religious beliefs to remain private and not be disclosed to the public at large. The question is whether you have such a right under a right be forgotten, to keep your religious beliefs private.

Can a right to be forgotten protect you from unwanted disclosure of your religious beliefs

Negative online posts against an alleged member of Church of Scientology 

Strategy for delisting links to blog posts from Google search results

Lawyer's thoughts about the unwanted disclosure of religious beliefs on the internet case

Can a right to be forgotten protect you from unwanted disclosure of your religious beliefs

Your right to freedom of religion and belief is protected by article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Still, the answer to the question whether you can use the right to be forgotten to remove online posts about your religious beliefs is not always clear.  For example, if a person has become a public figure due to their religious beliefs or if they asserted their religious beliefs to promote their good character, they might find it difficult to succeed in a right to be forgotten request that aims to remove disclosure of their religious beliefs from public domain.

However, in cases where the disclosure of one's religious belief is made for the purpose of attacking the individual on the basis of their belief, or prejudice of their family life or their business on this basis, there is arguably a right to require Google to delist articles which contain such information. Google, however, does not always agree that one's religious beliefs are a private matter. Unwanted disclosure of one's religious beliefs on the internet, could also be considered harassment that may allow the individual affected to take legal action for harassment

Our client, N.S., was the founder of a successful business, which provide a variety of laser treatments. Having taken a back seat with her business, N.S. became a registered nurse and started working for a drug rehabilitation charity, which delivered a programme which was structured upon some of the drug rehabilitation principles of Ron Hubbard. She never published that she was a member of the Church of Scientology or that she was a member of any other religious group. 

Negative online posts against an alleged member of the Church of Scientology

In January 2018, whilst working for the charity, N.S. was contacted by R.O. who presented herself by a false name and who claimed to be enquiring about the services of the drug rehabilitation charity on behalf of a member of her family. R.O. was particularly inquisitive about the links the charity had had with the Church of Scientology and whether some of the employees of the charity were practising scientologists.

Shortly after, R.O., who turned out to be something of an anti-scientologist campaigner and who runs a blog on the topic, started to post on her blog recordings and transcripts of her various telephone conversations with N.S. She also posted claims of negative nature about N.S. and her businesses.

She particularly branded N.S. as a scientologist and condemned N.S., her N.S. laser clinic and the charity she was working for as immoral and unethical. Anyone who carried out a search on Google for N.S.'s name or for any of the organisations she was associated with was bound to find the negative posts by R.O. as they appear very high on Google search results.

R.O. had search engine optimised her blog posts to cause N.S. maximum damage just because she believed that N.S. belonged to the Church of Scientology, something which R.O. clearly did not approve of. N.S.'s own lawyer had made an application to Google to delist the blog posts about N.S. from Google search results. They followed this up with a GDPR Notice but Google refused.

Unfortunately, by the time N.S. was referred to us, she was sufficiently horrified about R.O and was reluctant to confront her directly or file a claim for harassment against her. This was very understandable in the circumstances as R.O.'s actions were intimidating and made N.S. feel powerless.

Strategy for delisting links to blog posts from Google search results

When we first took on this project, it transpired that N.S.'s previous solicitors did not cover all the search phrases that brought up the adverse blog posts. They also overlooked some of the legitimate reasons for a right to be forgotten request. We often see incomplete right to be forgotten submissions, which had been submitted with little knowledge of the back-end of the internet, or in other words, without the understanding of how search engines operate.  By preparing a right to be forgotten application thoroughly, you will have search results removed from Google much quicker.  

After carrying out a through investigation, it became clear that the problem for N.S. and her associates was much greater than N.S. had initially thought. We started the project by making a right to be forgotten request to Google. Following several months of negotiations with Google, Google still declined our requests to delist the blog articles from search results. It was Google’s case that there was public interest in the links remaining on its searches.

The general public had a right to find the blog posts on Google searches because, at least according to Google, the posts related mainly to a business. This was only partly true. The point that Google kept missing was that the focus of O.S.'s blog posts was the Church of Scientology and not the businesses associated with N.S. Furthermore, R.O.. did not simply post legitimate criticism of the Church of Scientology but instead, she was naming names and then, naming more names of individuals she claimed were associated with who she claimed was a scientologist.

This was a crusade against members or alleged members of the Church of Scientology dressed up as legitimate criticism against a business.

Following Google's refusal to adhere to the right to be forgotten application and to our further representations, we served on behalf of N.S., on Google a Right to be Forgotten GDPR Notice alleging breach of right to privacy by claiming that she belonged to the Church of Scientology. An individual’s religion or spiritual belief are their own private matter and there is no right to make those beliefs or alleged beliefs public without that individual’s consent.

This is particularly true when the purpose of exposing one’s belief is to harm them, their interests and their associates. Having been served with a detailed and a well considered GDPR Notice, Google agreed to delist all the links to the posts about N.S. from R.O.'s. blog as well as delisting them for searches for N.S.'s company and the charity she was working for.

Lawyer's thoughts about the unwanted disclosure of religious belief on the internet case

This was a real achievement for N.S. and for her associates because a strict application of the right to be forgotten excludes the delisting of searches for business names. The right to be forgotten only applies to individuals and not to businesses.

There are two big challenges when dealing with a right to be forgotten application of this nature.

The first challenge is to find an edge to your application. Anyone can make a right to be forgotten application, which would include the most obvious legal arguments. The trick is to find a legal argument that would almost compel Google to not only do the right thing but to go the extra mile for you.

The second challenge is to make complex issues look simple. There are many cases with facts that are simply too complicated for those working at Google to make sense of. The more complicated your right to be forgotten application is, the less likely you are to have it approved by Google.