A court in the country of Amsterdam has issued a ruling that directs Google to remove a list of unofficially “blacklisted” doctors from a discussion group online. The case is noted as the first involving the legal concept of “right to be forgotten” that pertains to the alleged medical negligence of a doctor.
The judgment of the court, which was actually issued in July 2018, was delayed in its publication due to legal disputes over whether it’s availability to the public would rob the anonymity and privacy of the claimant herself as well as the other 15 doctors on the blacklist.
The claimant’s attorney – Willem van Lynden, from the MediaMaze Amsterdam law firm – in the aftermath of their legal victory, predicted that Google will now be forced to shut down thousands of pages: “There is a medical disciplinary panel but Google has been the judge until now,” stated Lynden.
Basic facts of the “right to be forgotten” case
The claimant in this case was a surgeon who was originally suspended from practicing by a disciplinary panel over issues involving her post-operative care of a patient. However, the original suspension was subsequently modified to a conditional suspension after she issued an appeal which enabled her to continue her practice and serve patients.
But, after winning her appeal, she discovered that whenever her name was entered in a Google search, the prominent search results returned included an unofficial website that referred to her and other doctors on an unofficial “blacklist.” In essence, one might view this as a violation of the privacy and anonymity concerns she rightly had regarding outdated, inaccurate, and harmful information about her. However, throughout the U.S., the principle of “right to be forgotten” is not compatible with current law and prevailing interpretations of the Constitution regarding freedom of speech.
The court’s ruling in favor of the surgeon
The judge in the case looked unfavorably at how Google’s search results resulting from a query of the surgeon’s name produced a link to outdated and presently inaccurate information on the unofficial blacklist site. The information so quickly accessible to potential patients would suggest that the doctor should not be treating any patients due to a suspension, which of course was false.
The Amsterdam District Court found in favor with the plaintiff that she (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 stated that although the website’s information regarding the previous failings of the doctor in 2014 was accurate, the uncomplimentary name of the blacklist website inferred that she was presently unfit under the law to provide medical treatment to patients. The findings of the disciplinary panel, however, did not support that inference.
Google claimed that most people would have a hard time locating the pertinent information on the medical board’s Big-register, where the medical records are publicly secured. However, the Dutch court rejected this claim.
In May 2014, the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” legal principle was first established. Since that time, more than 1 million URLs from Google’s search results have been delisted. According to Google’s October 2018 transparency report, the percentage of links removed by Google that constitute news sites or directory sites account for 36.3 percent of all delisted sites.