As the international vice president of legal for genealogy website The Generations Network, Ruth Daniels is relishing the challenge of new markets, she tells Tom Phillips
The hit BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? – which sees celebrities delve into the lives of their ancestors – has struck a chord with amateur genealogists everywhere.
Viewers and enthusiasts who do not have the backing of BBC researchers to explore their family tree have turned to the internet for help, swapping information and details on websites and forums, many of which are run as a labour of love by searchers themselves.
One online company has managed to bring many of the websites under one umbrella, creating a $200m (£127.01m) business in the process.
The Generations Network now features the details of some seven billion people – both living and long since deceased. The most well known European sites of the group include ancestry.co.uk – a brand that launched in 1997 in nine countries, including Canada and Germany, and which recently celebrated signing up its millionth subscriber. Of that number, 200,000 originated with ancestry.co.uk, making the UK the largest family history market outside the US.
In addition to its subscriber base, the ancestry websites boast 10 million unique global users a month, making the purchase of The Generations Network by private equity house Spectrum last year seem like a clever piece of business. And shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are helping to drive interest, with visitors to ancestry.co.uk increasing by 200 per cent over the course of series one and two.
To help cope with its extremely fast growth, the company last year hired Ruth Daniels to head up its legal department covering Europe and Australia, before quickly promoting her to vice president of legal and content for the international business.
Daniels admits she has been turned from a commercial IP lawyer (at Pinsent Masons) into a jack of all trades, spending the majority of her time dealing with the compliance, subscription and privacy issues that surround the operation of a website in dozens of countries, all of which feature user-generated content such as pictures and personal information.
Many of Europe’s laws on such issues are standardised, but China – the company’s next big market – “could be interesting”, says Daniels.
“Getting a legal perspective in each country is a challenge,” she adds.
“Legally, it may be fine, but in PR terms some things can have implications.”
To give one example of the cultural differences that beset a pan-global product such as this – those serious about their genealogy, or those stuck on identifying a great-great-great-grandparent, can buy a DNA testing kit with the potential to trace family links back generations using a swab from inside a user’s mouth. But in France, a nation particularly sensitive about anything DNA-related, users have not been offered the swabs.
While undoubtedly a corporate enterprise, Daniels points to the valuable services The Generations Network renders to posterity in converting paper records into digital files. “We preserve records that would otherwise be destroyed through neglect,” she says. “In Italian tribunals [much like our own parish councils] records are sometimes stacked in damp cellars rotting away. We send them to the US for restoration using hi-tech equipment and record the information.”
Daniels has so far traced 80 members of her own family tree, including great-great uncles and aunts she had no idea had ever existed.
One of the first tasks Daniels faced when she took on the role last year has just come to fruition, attracting much press coverage in the process. The deal involved working with the National Archives to digitise the UK’s incoming passenger lists for the years 1878-1960. These detail the arrival of more than 18 million men, women and children to the UK on boats during the twilight years of the British Empire.
Names on the list include ancestors of television chef Ainsley Harriott, MP Diane Abbott and footballer Theo Walcott, while Winston Churchill, Roger Moore and Elizabeth Taylor are listed as travellers.
“The beauty of working in-house is seeing the start of the idea and following it through to see how it impacts on the business,” says Daniels. “Working in private practice, you don’t see the work in the same context. It’s a personal business. People discover long-lost relatives and the message boards are full of stories from their shared pasts. My own search brought me closer to my parents by exploring our history.”
Name: Ruth Daniels
Organisation: The Generations Network
Industry: Internet/family history
Position: Vice president of legal and content (international)
Reporting to: Josh Hanna, senior vice president and managing director of international business
Company turnover: $200m (£127.01m)
Number of employees: Approximately 500 worldwide
Total legal capability: Six (four lawyers, two legal managers)
Main external law firms (for the international business): Pinsent Masons (UK); DLA Piper (UK, Sweden, China, Spain); Taylor Wessing(Germany, France, UK); DLA Phillips Fox (Australia), Gowling Lafleur Henderson (Canada); Nunziante Magrone (Italy)
Ruth Daniels’ CV
1987-1990: Bachelor of Commerce (Hons), University of Birmingham
1995: CPE, College of Law
1996: LPC, College of Law
1997: Trainee, Dibb Lupton Alsop
1999-2006: Solicitor and associate, DLA Piper
2006-07: Senior associate, Pinsent Masons
2007-present: Director of legal, EU and Australia, then vice president, legal and content (international), The Generations Network