Dutch surgeon wins landmark 'right to be forgotten' case

Dutch surgeon wins landmark 'right to be forgotten' case

Ruling will ensure doctors no longer judged by Google on fitness to practise, lawyer says

By Daniel Boffey in Brussels Mon 21 Jan 2019 07.47 EST Last modified on Mon 21 Jan 2019 08.56 EST

A Dutch surgeon formally disciplined for her medical negligence has won a legal action to remove Google search results about her case in a landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling.

The doctor’s registration on the register of healthcare professionals was initially suspended by a disciplinary panel because of her postoperative care of a patient. After an appeal, this was changed to a conditional suspension under which she was allowed to continue to practise.

But the first results after entering the doctor’s name in Google continued to be links to a website containing an unofficial blacklist, which it was claimed amounted to “digital pillory”. It was heard that potential patients had found the blacklist on Google and discussed the case on a web forum.

Google and the Dutch data privacy watchdog, Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, initially rejected attempts to have the links removed on the basis that the doctor was still on probation and the information remained relevant.

However, in what is said to be the first right to be forgotten case involving medical negligence by a doctor, the district court of Amsterdam subsequently ruled the surgeon had “an interest in not indicating that every time someone enters their full name in Google’s search engine, (almost) immediately the mention of her name appears on the ‘blacklist of doctors’, and this importance adds more weight than the public’s interest in finding this information in this way”.

The judge said that while the information on the website with reference to the failings of the doctor in 2014 was correct, the pejorative name of the blacklist site suggested she was unfit to treat people, and that was not supported by the disciplinary panel’s findings.

The court further rejected Google’s claim that most people would have difficulty in finding the relevant information on the medical board’s Big-register, where the records are publicly held.

The surgeon’s lawyer, Willem van Lynden, from the Amsterdam firm MediaMaze, said the ruling was groundbreaking in ensuring doctors would no longer be judged by Google on their fitness to practise.

“Now they will have to bring down thousands of pages: that is what will happen, in my view. There is a medical disciplinary panel but Google have been the judge until now. They have decided whether to take a page down – and why do they have that position?” he said.

The case was concluded in July but only made public in recent days after a dispute over whether the court’s judgment itself should be published.

Since the ruling, Van Lynden said he had sought the removal of the details of 15 doctors from the blacklist, all of which involved minor disciplinary action, but only half of which had been accepted. “The disciplinary committee is not meant to be about punishment. It is meant to be correcting the doctor’s mistake so they can do the job next time,” Van Lynden said.

The European court of justice established the “right to be forgotten” in a 2014 ruling relating to a Spanish citizen’s claim against material about him found on Google searches. It allows European citizens to ask search engines to remove links to “inadequate, irrelevant or … excessive” content. About 3 million people in Europe have since made such a request.


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