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Advice for doctors criticised online

Medical Defence Union outlines the implications of a European court ruling on the right to be forgotten online

Ingrid Torjesen

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A recent European court ruling on the right to be forgotten online will not mean that published criticism of doctors can be removed from the internet or hidden so patients will not be able to find it, the Medicine Defence Union has warned.

The Medical Defence Union has been contacted by numerous doctors asking for advice since the implications of the recent European court ruling on the right to be forgotten online. The ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union found that search engine operators are data controllers and that individuals have the right to ask them to remove certain search results on privacy grounds. These include results which appear to be inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.

Dr Caroline Fryar, head of advisory services at the Medical Defence Union, said: "Increasingly doctors are seeking our advice about how to deal with critical online coverage. They may have found to their distress that an online search of their name brings up an unfavourable or unflattering story such as a news report about a patient complaint or a past GMC investigation, which may have happened many years ago."

While the recent European court ruling was good news for doctors as it means they can apply to Google and other search engine operators to request the removal of certain results on privacy grounds, she pointed out that this would not mean that the information would not be available to online users.

"It remains to be seen whether requests to remove results will be successful given that decisions will be taken on a case by case basis, balancing the public interest with the right to privacy,” she said. "It is also important to remember that the actual web pages and documents will not be removed from the internet, only the opportunity to access them via a search engine link.”

In addition, the judgment also only applies to EU countries, she added. “Users may still be able to navigate to the particular page by using a completely different search term or the same search term entered into a search engine outside the EU."

She advised: "Ultimately, the understandable desire to have a website link erased needs to be balanced against recognition that achieving this may not be the end of the matter and may itself attract comment."

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