On July 3, BMJ posted a retraction notice for an article that barely said anything:
This article has been retracted by the journal following a complaint.
BMJ told Retraction Watch that it took down the film review in response to a European citizen exercising his or her “right to be forgotten,” an internet privacy idea that, according to the European Union, ensures:
A person can ask for personal data to be deleted once that data is no longer necessary.
The journal declined to comment, beyond saying:
This review was taken down following a request based on the European Court of Justice’s ruling in the 2014 Google Spain case about the right to be forgotten.
Barely any information about this film exists anywhere on the internet. The only description we could find was from a 2015 post on the blog Boing Boing, which says the film is about:
Three people who have true delusions of grandeur based on “profoundly religious or revalatory (sic) experiences.”
That blog post once contained an embedded video of the documentary, but that has been removed as well. It’s unclear if these disappearances are related.
So far, the right to be forgotten has only been established in Europe — with legal underpinnings dating to at least 1995 — and Argentina. In the EU, individuals submit requests to search engines or other web indices, which then decide internally whether to comply or not; if the request is rejected, the individual can sue and let a court decide whether the search engine erred in its decision.
Google continues to fight the landmark 2014 case and its aftershocks: A French data regulator has ordered Google to implement the right to be forgotten globally, and not just on its sites facing European countries (i.e. Google.fr). Google has challenged this ruling and the matter will be heard soon by the Court of Justice of the European Union, the EU’s top court.
One legal expert familiar with the European rules said he was “puzzled” as to how the “right to be forgotten” might apply to the BMJ film review. Jonathan Zittrain, of Harvard Law School, told Retraction Watch:
It’s an article about a film and it’s the person writing the article’s judgement about the film. It’s hard to imagine how this would apply. It’s possible that if BMJ had said no, that would be the end of it. I’m having to hypothesize what the claim is. Maybe they were just nervous and said “who cares?” so they just took it down.
Part of Zittrain’s confusion was why the BMJ pulled down the article at the source:
The right to be forgotten, as applied in Europe right now, has been all about search engines…
As it turns out, the documentary subject did go after the entry at the index — in this case, PubMed.
Joyce Backus, the associate director of library operations at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), where she oversees the content of PubMed and MEDLINE, told us:
Somebody wrote to us [about the article] in late April. We forwarded it to BMJ and they looked into it and indicated they would withdraw it for legal reasons in late May.
All that remains on PubMed is an automated notice that says:
For legal reasons, the publisher has withdrawn permission for online, public display of this article via PubMed Central.
Backus said the process was entirely controlled by the journal, although NLM will often forward takedown requests:
[The journal is] the instigator. It’s not that we are choosing to comply or not comply with the EU right to be forgotten. They’ve decided through their editorial process to withdraw based on legal processes. I believe they can do this in our system.
All told, Backus said the process took about a month. She told us that the PubMed Central staff deal with article takedowns, often for privacy issues, “a couple times a year.” She added:
In my experience I don’t believe we’ve ever declined a request.
She noted that though the film review isn’t online, it’s not gone forever:
You can’t withdraw items in print. Go to a library that has BMJ. Depending on where you are, a good medical library will have it.
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