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Surgeon wins "right to be forgotten" case against Google in the Netherlands

Removing old, inaccurate or even just irrelevant data from the web

30 January 2019

A Dutch surgeon who had been put on an unofficial blacklist has won a landmark "the right to be forgotten" ruling against Google to have search results about her removed.

The right to be forgotten, created by the European Court of Justice's decision "Google Spain" in 2014, entitles individuals in Europe to request search engines to delist search results related to their names that are deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive". The ruling was rendered in July 2018 by the Amsterdam district court, however the full judgement has only recently been made public due to an ongoing dispute about whether the court’s judgment itself should be published. In the meantime, Google has filed an appeal.

Following a complaint submitted by a patient, the surgeon was formally disciplined for medical negligence. The medical disciplinary tribunal imposed an unconditional suspension of her entry in the BIG-register, the public register of medical practitioners in the Netherlands. Following appeal, this was changed to a conditional suspension with a probationary period, meaning the surgeon was still allowed to practice her profession.

However, the first results after entering the surgeon’s name in Google continued to be links to (i) an unofficial blacklist including her picture, medical registration number and the disciplinary decision and (ii) an article of a local newspaper with a summary of the disciplinary decision and her name published in the headline.

Google initially rejected the surgeon's request to remove the links, stating that the links were of public interest. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (de Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens) subsequently denied the request as well, as the information in the search results was deemed accurate and, with the probationary period running, still relevant.

The case was then referred to the Amsterdam district court which concluded that there were no special circumstances which needed to be taken into account which would imply that the public interest prevails over the right to respect the surgeon's private life. The court ruled that 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 court furthermore ruled that the public can find information concerning disciplinary decisions in the BIG-register, thus rejecting Google's argument on access to information. Google was granted seven days by the court to erase the search results.

This case is part of a broader dispute between Google and European Data Protection Authorities, as showcased by the current case pending before the European Court of Justice on the territorial scope (European versus global) of the "right to be forgotten" between Google and the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL). (Read our article on that case). The "right to be forgotten" remains a heavily debated topic, in particular how it interplays with the right to data erasure under the GDPR. The Amsterdam district court ruling therefore might well be the first in yet many to come.