Feature Online Reputations

Google, doctors, and the “right to be forgotten”

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h27 (Published 06 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h27
  1. David Payne, digital editor and reader editor, The BMJ
  1. dpayne{at}bmj.com

Doctors and other individuals have legal rights to be “forgotten” online in Europe. As search engines act on the first requests, David Payne examines the implications so far for the medical profession

The personal details of a UK doctor whose “botched procedure” attracted media attention are among thousands of urls1 removed from Google search results after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that individuals have “the right to be forgotten.”

The ECJ judgment in May 2014 applies to any content that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive,”2 which, in the case of the doctor, led to the search engine removing links to three pages that contained his details (based on a search of his name) but did not mention the procedure. More than 50 links to reports about the procedure remain.

The judgment was a victory for Spanish businessman Mario Costeja Gonzalez.3 He had complained when a search of his name returned an auction notice of his property in a newspaper. The auction was being held to pay alleged social security debts. Gonzalez had in fact settled the debts, and the auction never took place.

Google (and other search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo)4 applies the ruling only to European versions of its websites, such as google.be or google.fr, but late last year faced calls from an independent advisory European Union working party, set up under article 29 of the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC, to extend the ruling internationally to its .com domain.5

The call was seized upon by US critics of the ECJ judgment, who described the right to be forgotten as a foreign concept that is anathema to the country’s First Amendment, clashing with a constitutional right to free speech.6

Not surprisingly, Google disagrees with the …

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