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Paying to Scrub Your Google Search History Can Backfire

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 18, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Internet's attention span is short, but its memory is long. And if you've done something embarrassing, you'll be reminded every time you Google yourself. Maybe you sent out a tasteless tweet, wrote a horrible college op-ed, or casually pepper sprayed a group of college students. Now Google won't let you forget it. What can one do?

In France, they have a "right to be forgotten," the ability to petition Google and other search engines to remove web pages from search results. We don't have that here in America. We have cold, hard cash. And the University of California, Davis has been spending a fair amount of it, trying to scrub its 2011 pepper spraying incident from the Internet.

Cleaning Pepper Spray From the Internet Costs About $175,000.

U.C. Davis would like to be known for its agricultural programs, its doctoral research, or even its middling football team, the Aggies. But when you Googled the University of California's third largest school, you were about as likely to learn about its undergrad programs as its 2011 pepper spraying incident. That's the one where a campus police officer nonchalantly pepper sprayed a group of seated, nonviolent student protestors, largely without provocation.

It's not a high point in Davis' history. And last week, the Sacramento Bee revealed that the school had paid consultants at least $175,000 to help remove the incident from the Internet. According to the Bee:

Some payments were made in hopes of improving the results computer users obtained when searching for information about the university or [U.C. Davis Chancellor Linda] Katehi, results that one consultant labeled "venomous rhetoric about UC Davis and the chancellor."

Others sought to improve the school's use of social media and to devise a new plan for the UC Davis strategic communications office, which has seen its budget rise substantially since Katehi took the chancellor's post in 2009.

But Did It Work?

The news is certainly an embarrassment to Davis, but was the money well spent? Perhaps. If you Google U.C. Davis today, the incident and Davis's attempted online cover up will be prominently featured. But, when Mother Jones' Kevin Drum attempted to control for results inspired by the SacBee's revelations, it seems like the consultants were successful:

Unless I missed something, the top 50 hits didn't include a single reference to pepper spraying. Every reference you see in a normal search is there solely because of the SacBee report.

Now, there's no telling how much of UCD's success was due to the scrubbing effort, and how much was due to the simple passage of five years. Still, it's likely that the scrubbing was responsible for at least some of it...

Of course, any success was undone when the news of the scrubbing went public. The University of California's student association on Friday called on Chancellor Katehi's resignation, part of what the Los Angeles Times calls "a growing call for Katehi to step down."

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