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
All rapid responses
On 20 March 2016 Google told us it had removed a link to the following correction from search engine results in Europe.
This is the fifth piece of content from The BMJ affected by the "right to be forgotten" ruling.
The article, entitled "Exponent of 'male menopause' censured by GMC" can be found at this link:
You can find out more about the right to be forgotten from this article:
Competing interests: No competing interests
On 28 May 2015 Google alerted us to a fourth piece of content removed from its search engine results in Europe under "right to be forgotten."
Doubts raised over cancer vaccine study
....along with its standard explainer:
"Due to a request under data protection law in Europe, we are no longer able to show one or more pages from your site in our search results in response to some search queries for names or other personal identifiers. Only results on European versions of Google are affected. No action is required from you.
"These pages have not been blocked entirely from our search results, and will continue to appear for queries other than those specified by individuals in the European data protection law requests we have honored. Unfortunately, due to individual privacy concerns, we are not able to disclose which queries have been affected.
"Please note that in many cases, the affected queries do not relate to the name of any person mentioned prominently on the page. For example, in some cases, the name may appear only in a comment section.
"If you believe Google should be aware of additional information regarding this content that might result in a reversal or other change to this removal action, you can use our form at https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/eu-privacy-webmaster. Please note that we can't guarantee responses to submissions to that form."
The feature "Google, doctors and the right to be forgotten" (BMJ 2015;350:h27) explains more about the ruling
Competing interests: No competing interests
Following my earlier post, I can now add that the regulator in the UK (ICO) rejected my request, on the basis that I am a professional and the defamatory comments I complained about can be viewed as a professional disagreement. (The cyberbullies were not researchers in the field, nor bothered about accuracy and good science, so I find that argument hard to follow). The main message is thus that having a PhD or being a physician means you are a public figure and therefore any attacks on your competence are 'work-related' and the links are in the public interest. As I see it, we are excluded from the European court ruling.
Competing interests: My request for removal of links was rejected.
I contacted the GMC during the course of writing this feature as I was anxious to clarify what does or doesn't stay on its website when a doctor is cautioned and/or returned to the register following a suspension.
I suspect some requests to Google will be from doctors who at some point in their career faced conduct proceedings. As the feature makes clear, the expert advisory panel set up by Google will examine professional conduct issues in light of the "right to be forgotten."
Unfortunately the GMC got back to me after my deadline, but this is what their spokesperson said:
"Just for background: we publish all the information about doctors in the public domain on the List of Registered Medical Practitioners (LRMP) on our website. Towards the top right there’s a section called ‘check a doctor’s registration status’ and this includes current or historic restrictions or sanctions on a doctor’s registration, including the minutes of fitness to practise hearings (unless held in private where a case relates to a doctor’s health).
"For further information about this - we publish what we call our ‘publication and disclosure’ polices on our website. This outlines how long we publish fitness to practise information about doctors, and paragraphs 6 to 19 cover the relevant points here http://www.gmc-uk.org/DC4380_Publication_and_disclosure_policy_36609763.pdf.
"Just one thing I should mention for clarification - if a doctor is erased from the register and then later restored - the original erasure decision would still be published on our website (including the minutes of the hearing). "
Competing interests: No competing interests
I totally disagree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, quoted by David Payne (BMJ 2015;350:h27) that the right to be forgotten is "dangerous". According to Sir Tim, "the right to access history is important". However, that is not the issue here. The search engines don't usually remove the original material but only the links. If you want to access 'history', you can still do it the old fashioned way. He, and others, must be aware that the regulation of the internet is limited. At the moment, anyone can write almost anything, and unless you are rich enough to bring a case using the Defamation Act, it’s hard to get material removed. If subjected to a campaign of cyberbullying with threats, the CPS can bring a prosecution under The Harassment Act but the threshold is high and all you will probably get is a temporary restraining order and about £200 compensation.
As an adult, you may be able to dismiss the nonsense and your colleagues may well laugh with you as each post comes online, but will people remember the campaign against you ten years on? Long after the event, will a Google search indicate that an allegation was part of a campaign inciting hatred and that the author was subsequently convicted? The right to be forgotten is not just about poor reporting in a newspaper or offenders who have served their time and want to make a fresh start. It’s also about protecting the victims of malice, defamation and cyberbullying. As such, it doesn’t clash with the right to free speech. The ruling is one of the few resources available to those who aren’t wealthy and can’t afford the European Court.
In my case, Google rejected my request to remove links to posts written by a small number cyberbullies on the basis that my 'potential patients' and 'clients' had a right to know about the accusations. Apparently, it was in the public interest. For the record, I am a disabled scientist and spent over 30 years doing voluntary work for charities. I have no potential patients or clients and Google wasn’t interested in the court judgement showing I was a victim, not a rogue.
Anyone wishing to 'access’ my ‘history' from the comfort of their living room will not be aware either of the conviction or the context. They will not know that the campaign also affected many others, and that none of the posts were written by reasonable people with a genuine grudge. It was malicious gossip which gained a worldwide, albeit limited, audience and it’s hard to think who gained.
Following the new guidelines, professionals such as doctors, will have a much harder time having their requests accepted, as they are deemed to be 'public figures'.
If people were able to recognise subtle cyberbullying, then many of the posts would not be a threat to one's future. But sophisticated bullying can look perfectly plausible and that’s why it’s dangerous. Page 1 or 2 of a search might list a single post with dubious claims, but won't necessarily lead you to evidence indicating a long campaign of harassment, let alone the conviction.
The episode damaged my reputation as an honest scientist and I found that colleagues who once asked me for advice, no longer contact me. I am tainted. For example, about a year ago, I was asked to review an application for a grant. This is a lot of work and unpaid. I found out that the organisation was about to fund a study with many methodological flaws and that the limited number of measures would not enable the researchers to answer their own questions. I contacted the head of quality control who promised to look into it. A few days later, he rang and said that he'd googled me and found that I was "one of those". I asked him what he meant by that, and he responded "you know". I don't. All I know is that I was one of the victims of a concerted campaign in 2004 by four individuals and a few of their friends, and that their allegations can be found within seconds of entering my name in the search box.
In the old days, those maligned by a village gossip could escape by moving town. With the internet, you can't. There are no easy answers but I hope that the debate will consider the plight of victims and not just the rights of individuals with an imperfect past.
Ellen Goudsmit FBPsS
Competing interests: My request to remove links was rejected.