Has the EU given doctors the “right to be forgotten” when medical tourism goes wrong?

When doctors, hospitals and clinics involved in medical tourism make mistakes, unhappy patients go to the media to publicise their dissatisfaction. Their “botched up” surgery stories get in the media both in print and online. The newspaper may be thrown away but the online story has an eternal life.

So, will this week’s ruling from the European Union Court of Justice give doctors and surgeons the “right to be forgotten” and request that links to these bad news stories are removed from Google search results?

The European Union Court of Justice has ruled that links from Google search results to “irrelevant” and outdated data should be erased on the request of the affected individual. It means that an individual can ask Google (and other search engines) to remove listings and links to web pages about them that the individual does not want to remain in public view on the search engine results. (The original web page will remain, but the Google link to the page will be removed. The ruling is supported by those who see the “right to be forgotten” as a counter to what they perceive as Google’s invasion of privacy. Others view it as an attack on free speech. Why can’t Google publish links to information that may be true, but that an affected individual may not like?

Google’s argument is that it doesn’t control the content of pages on other web sites. Google just links to these pages. In Google’s view, it’s the task of the web site owner to remove out of date or misleading information. But the European Union Court of Justice disagreed.

It raises the question… Can doctors who have been involved in a medical negligence case exercise their “right to be forgotten” by Google and thus clean up their online reputation?

Background to the case

Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spaniard, made the original complaint to the Spanish data protection agency. Back in 1998, his property had been auctioned off to pay social security debts. Two news appeared on the website of La Vanguardia, a Spanish newspaper and made this public. A Google search for his name provided links to the two news stories, and Mr Gonzalez was unhappy with how this affected his image and reputation.

Mr Gonzalez argued that Google was infringing his privacy in making the information available. The data protection agency agreed and decided that Google should remove access to these articles about Mr Gonzalez in the future. Google appealed the case and it went to the European Union Court of Justice.

Google lost.

Rebuilding a doctor’s reputation

Within Intuition, we provide a service to UK and international doctors and specialists which helps them to build their online “reputation” within a specific area of medical or surgical expertise. A challenge we sometimes face is rebuilding the reputation of a doctor (let’s call him Dr Jones) who has been involved in a medical negligence case. Such a case is often covered on major newspaper and media sites. Dr Jones may not have been held responsible for the negligence, or may have “served his sentence” (e.g. a suspension by his medical board). But Dr Jones’ reputation continues to be tarnished by what can be found online through a Google search. Search for Dr Jones by name on Google, and at the top of the search results you may find “medical tourist dies/is injured due to hospital/doctor error” stories that name Dr Jones, and damage his reputation (rightly or wrongly).

Can Dr Jones use the EU ruling to ask Google to remove the links to the articles about the clinical negligence case? Well, it’s certainly worth a try.

In the ECJ judgement, the court in Luxembourg said people had the right to request that information be removed if it appeared to be “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. So, could we see online reports of “botched up surgery abroad” removed and the slate being “wiped clean” for those involved?

How will Google handle this?

According to the media, Google has yet “to figure out how to deal with the expected flood of expected requests and will need to build up an “army of removal experts” in each of the 28 European Union countries”.

Google is already receiving requests for such removals. In the healthcare sector, requests have been submitted by doctors who want to remove negative patient comments from review sites.

Interesting times ahead for Google!

Related links

  • European Union Court of Justice

Previous comments on this article

From media trade site HoldTheFront Page–

Man loses right to be forgotten bid against UK newspaper

A man has lost his appeal for a newspaper to remove an archived story of his fraud conviction from its website.

Despite the recent introduction of a ‘right to be forgotten’ in a European Court ruling, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rejected the man’s complaint that the Newsquest owned paper was breaching the Data Protection Act 1998.

The man in question approached the newspaper and asked it to remove the report, arguing that the conviction occurred in January 2000, and was now spent under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

Newsquest refused to remove the material, arguing that it was general company policy that it does not delete, amend, or annotate, material in its archives, unless there was an inaccuracy.

Newsquest argued that its archives – whether in hard copy or online – are a valuable historical record, and their integrity should be preserved as far as possible, and therefore should be kept indefinitely, and that their creation and upkeep complied with the Data Protection Act.

The ICO said it took “a fairly broad view of what counts as journalism under the exemption so as to ensure proper protection for the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“If something is done with the aim of disclosing information, opinion, or ideas to the public by any means, it will be for the purposes of journalism,” it said.

It said Newsquest had highlighted that retaining reports of criminal convictions in newspaper archives did not breach the Data Protection Act, and had argued that if it did, then newspaper archives in general would be impractical to operate, and worthless to users.

Ian Youngman (22/05/2014 08:05:05)

In the healthcare sector, requests have been submitted by doctors who want to remove negative patient comments from review sites”

Such requests are.not at all affected by the Google ruling.

All the ruling does is give an opportunity to delete agreed information from a Google search.

The court ruling makes it crystal clear that the ruling does not give anybody any new rights to get information taken off any website anywhere,

So -for example; if is posted a news item on 20 football sites that ” Keith Pollard is a life long Norwich City fan” he could ask Google to delete any link on search results – but the offending comment would stay on all 20 fottball sites.

Google is developing new tools to make it easier to ask for takedowns

German regulators are developing an automated tool similar to those provided for the takedown of copyright material. The tool will include an authentication mechanism which can weed out phoney takedown requests before a human evaluates genuine queries.

Doctors or hospitals hoping to delete references about negligence claims or unhappy customers will not find the ruling helpful .

Google lawyers have to weigh up whether it is in the public interest for that information to remain.,and the court gave them a ‘ get out of jail free’ card that means that as long as they think it is in the public interest, they can refuse any request- and then the only thing to for the person or organisation is to try to take Google to court and do to that they need the approval of the local judges.

The ruling does not apply to review comments on websites, as there are already legal avenues to deal with those.

Ironically, a doctor trying to get something removed by Google – and trying to force the issue- may get the link removed- but will have to suffer years of headlines about the court case.

The whole thing is probably a storm in a teacup as many judges have suggested that they will not take kindly to people trying to clog up their courts with spurious actions against Google.

It may have been the beer talking- but a lawyer friend suggested that Google has a way of killing the process stone dead.
” All they have to do is issue a weekly global list of people and organisations who have asked for removals, what they have asked to be removed, and seek public opinion on whether or not it is in the public interest to keep that information on Goggle searches.”

Ian Youngman (19/05/2014 13:19:24)