Intended for healthcare professionals

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

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

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.

07 January 2015
Ellen Goudsmit
Health Psychologist (retired)
London