Issued on 7 March 2018
The increasing use of search engines and discourse about the right of self-determination and the right to be forgotten have caused a surge in the requests for media to remove published content from their online channels. In its previously issued resolution concerning online archives, the Council for Mass Media stated that online archives are a part of history that should not be interfered with except in extremely exceptional cases.
Since the issuing of that resolution in 2009, the publicised online content has become more diversified and search engines have become quite advanced. Any content that has once been published online may appear again years later on the basis of, for example, a person’s name in an article. For this reason, it has become necessary to issue a statement that takes a stand on all online content published by the media, rather than just traditional online archives.
Scope of application
This statement takes a stand on the retrospective removal or revision of published content that takes place clearly after the original release date. The statement does not concern corrections to or revision of recent news items or the monitoring of developing news events.
Principles concerning the removal of online content
According to the Council for Mass Media, the content published online by the media is considered part of history and should not be interfered with except for especially weighty reasons.
The Council states that the removal of previously published content is subject to editorial discretion. In accordance with good journalistic practice, the removal of content is only justified in extremely exceptional cases, if the old journalistic content found online can be seen as causing unreasonable consequences to private persons.
A request for the removal of content can be interpreted as an attempt to influence the media communications and consent thereto may signify a waiver of editorial discretion. For this reason, the Chief Editor shall always have weighty and journalistically sustainable grounds for consenting to a request for removal, and the matter can only be decided on by the Chief Editor.
The Guidelines for Journalists require careful consideration about the publication of names or other identifying information, if there is a danger that the person will be subjected to highly negative publicity or the case concerns a person’s private life. As a digital footprint will be created on the basis of a person’s name and other identifying information, the Council recommends particularly thorough consideration when dealing with content intended for publication online. Particular discretion should be used when publishing any identifying factors concerning children or young people in cases that handle their private lives in a way that may later lead to unreasonable consequences.
The Council emphasises that the media makes and shall be allowed to continue to make publication decisions and possible decisions to remove content independent of search engines. Search engine companies are responsible for their own operations when it comes to the handling of personal data within engine results. The requirements of the EU General Data Protection Regulation concerning the right to be forgotten are not applicable to the content published by the media. The Council states as a reminder that Chief Editors can, if they wish, advise those presenting a request for the removal of content to deal with the search engine companies in question.
Specifications and recommendations
According to the Council, the Chief Editor can agree to remove published online content from a media channel if, according to the Chief Editor’s assessment, such content would clearly result in unreasonable consequences for a private person. These consequences must be assessed in relation to the public’s right of access to information, which is the key aspect of freedom of speech.
The discretionary power of the Chief Editor also includes the removal of certain aspects of the published content, such as individual names or photos. In such cases, the public must be told about the revision of the article as well as how and when the revision has taken place.
Clearly unreasonable consequences to a person can be caused, for example, if the situation changes essentially or the media in question has learned of crucial new information after the publication of the article. In such cases, the Chief Editor may come to the conclusion that the article published online presents a false image of a person in a clearly harmful manner. The Council states that this is exceptional and may concern, for example, factors related to a person’s state of health or a child’s position. Correspondingly, the Chief Editor may also no longer consider it justifiable to publish issues that deal with crimes or other mistakes committed in one’s youth.
In principle, history should not be erased as it concerns, for example, the types of positions people have held or the politics or other opinions that they may have presented. A change in one’s life situation in terms of, for example, a job or position of trust, familial relations or political stand is not considered sufficient grounds for the retrospective removal or revision of a published article or part thereof.
In certain exceptional cases, information published online may jeopardise the safety of the subject. In this case, it may be justifiable for the Chief Editor to consent to the revision or removal of such information. The risk of endangered safety must be credible when objectively assessed. If desired, the Chief Editor may also remove content in other cases where the sustained visibility of information may, according to the Chief Editor’s assessment, lead to completely unreasonable consequences for the person in question.
History should not, however, be erased completely; rather, all articles should be stored untouched somewhere. For example, traditional magazine and newspaper online archives and facsimiles should be kept untouched, even though a Chief Editor finds it justified to delete a particular item from the website of the magazine or newspaper.
The Council emphasises that the media is not obligated to consent to the removal of such content that complies with the Guidelines for Journalists, nor can the Council make a decision that would require such a removal. Within the scope of its framework agreement, the Council also cannot, without an exceptional reason, interfere in matters that concern content that is more than three months old.