Who Determines the Public Interest Google or the Government?

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is nearly 50 years old. Passed into law in 1974, it aims to give those convicted of a criminal offence a second chance; it allows people with a spent conviction to move on with their lives as if their offence never happened.

A spent conviction only applies to smaller crimes and nobody jailed for more than four years will qualify. It means that a certain amount of time (up to seven years) must pass without re-offending for a conviction to be spent.

When you consider that around one third of men have a non-motoring criminal conviction by the time they retire, this makes good public policy. You allow people to get a job and progress with their careers, thereby getting more tax revenue rather than paying them benefits. It helps stop re-offending: studies show that people who leave jail with no hope of a job and moving on with their lives are more likely to commit another crime. This is in the public interest: more revenue from taxes, saving thousands of pounds in prison costs, and fewer victims of crime.

This is the essence of the policy and it worked well in the past.  Now, however, it is in jeopardy not because of any change of heart from the government but because Google and other search engines sometimes refuse to remove outdated reports about people’s old convictions which remain online.

Search engines cite the public interest in order to justify their behaviour. What is worse is that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) often seems to back them up. This flies in the face of democracy and public policy. We have a representative democracy; MPs are elected by the public to act in the public interest. In this case, they voted for people with spent convictions to be able to move forward without having to mention their offence. Search engines (and the ICO) are unelected but think they know better than parliament about what constitutes the public interest. They often confuse the public interest with what interests their profits and shareholders.

This behaviour persists despite the High Court ruling in NT1 & NT2 v Google LLC in 2018.

This landmark judgment basically says that mentioning a person’s spent conviction is contrary to data protection laws. It is about time that search engines look at what the public interest actually is, according to Parliament and the High Court, and stop breaking the law. That would surely be in the public interest.