HIV confidentiality on the internet
October 11, 2007 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Search engines and HIV confidentiality

Is there a way to get Google and other search engines to remove a link to an old court decision which references a person by name along with his HIV+ status? The court decision is a public record, and there's not much that can be done about that, but has anyone heard of situations where search engines will respond positively to a request for removal of information on the basis of the sensitivity of the information that's being put out there?

The person was a minor when the court issued the decision, and thus had no control over the use of his name. He's now an adult and is experiencing some grief over this issue.
posted by lassie to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Could he contact the court and ask them if anything can be done to remove either his name or the HIV reference from the document? Publishing a minor's medical information seems like a very weird thing for a court to insist on.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:48 PM on October 11, 2007

Which court is it, and has it been published? (You can usually tell if a case has been published if its citation contains a volume number and page, i.e. 465 N.Y.S.2d 501). If it's sitting out there on the court's website, the affected individual could intervene to have the decision redacted or sealed. As you might guess, linking up with an attorney, especially one with experience practicing before the court at issue, is going to be helpful. If the case has been published, then it's already been printed in a bound volume.

This is all very strange; courts almost always use aliases when dealing with private medical information and especially when dealing with minors.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:23 PM on October 11, 2007

This is an interesting dilemma. In many states, HIV status reporting to DoH is mandatory if the testing is done at a family services program, or health clinic (a note to the wise for those receiving tests). Before HIPAA, this information, once reported, was not as easily protected from the public sphere as it would be now. The problem with HIV status is once it goes beyond the person who is HIV+ and the immediate care providers, it's a Pandora's Box. I seriously doubt that this person is going to receive any remedy whatsoever without direct legal intervention. I recommend contacting an HIV advocacy organization with ties to the legal community and seeking counsel that way - he might find some useful allies this way, and even if not, some support. The Title II or III RWCA services provider in this person's local area would be the first point of contact for information about what advocacy orgs might be good places to look. Good luck to him.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:45 PM on October 11, 2007

I'm so sorry, I should have clarified in my original post that I am a lawyer who works with people living with HIV. Therefore, I do know the stuff about the redacting of court orders after publication (pretty much impossible to do as far as I know), as well as HIPAA, Article 27F (NY's HIV confidentiality law), and the community organizations dealing with people living with HIV.

My question was more about non-legal advocacy with internet search engines. I don't actually think there's a legal remedy to this problem because the disclosure by the court is a) permitted under the law, and b) the order then becomes a public record. Also, the law is pretty clear -- it only prohibits unauthorized redisclosure by persons or entities who received the information while providing certain specific services to the infected individual. Google, for all its usefulness, does not provide any such services, so is not covered by the law.

Because I don't see a legal remedy, I'm wondering if there's a geeky internet remedy, something as simple as just asking Google if they'll take it off their index. Again, I appreciate the answers I've received so far, and wish I'd made clearer what I was looking for. Sorry about that. Also, Saucy Intruder, there were particular circumstances about this case that led to the minor's name being used. Not that I agree with the Court's decision to do so.
posted by lassie at 8:35 PM on October 11, 2007

The Court (or the Court webmaster) can put a piece of code in the webpage which will block search engines from indexing it. The webpage would look and be identical to the user, but it just couldn't be found by a search engine.

Perhaps you could ask the Court to do that? This way the case would still be online and accessible (as their policy presumably requires), just not indexed by commercial search engines.
(If they do agree to it, they will need to put <meta name="robots" content="noindex,follow"> in the header of the webpage.)

I'm fairly sure that Google will only remove the webpage from their index if you can prove you own it.

Their policy:
Does Google censor search results?

It is Google's policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages. Please note: For some older removals (before March 2005), we may not show a notice at this time.

posted by Count Ziggurat at 9:57 PM on October 11, 2007

I think you're probably right, Count Ziggurat. The problem with this situation is that the order is old, probably written by a judge who didn't understand the future consequences of "outing" the boy's health status. As such, and because of the way legal decisions are published (both in print form, as Saucy Intruder noted above, and on the internet), his information is out there and there's not much to be done about it at this late stage even if Google agrees to not index the case. The time and way to do it would have been during the case, in the form of a motion to conceal the real names of the parties.

It would still be nice is if his health status didn't pop up every time one of his friends or potential employers Googles his name. Perhaps the Court webmaster will agree to this request, although I must say I'm not hopeful.
posted by lassie at 10:18 PM on October 11, 2007

The broader issue is that search engine robots can only be asked (not forced) to avoid indexing content.

So even if you were somehow able to get the court's webmasters to put up a don't-index request for that content, that request is only effective in the search engines that are set up to respect it.

Most major search engines such as Google are, but some new, commercial and/or specialized ones aren't. For example, some "people search" or "background check" search engines and services, especially the semi-shady commercial/private ones, are not set up to respect such requests, and there's no way to force them to.

(In fact, there are "bad bots" specifically created to crawl the web looking for such requests and indexing ONLY the content those requests points to -- with the goal of collecting possibly juicy content someone requested that no one index. Honestly, it's a bit like hanging a sign on the side of your house saying "Please don't steal my jewelry, which is located in a safe with a combination of 9876 in the bedroom just to the left of this sign." Just a little public service announcement for anybody reading this who's trusting robots.txt or a metatag to hide anything actually valuable or sensitive.)

Still, removing it from Google's index would be an excellent start if you can make it happen, and the benefit of excluding it from everyday/casual searches would certainly outweigh any targeted indexing by bad bots, which is seen only by a small audience who couldn't care less about HIV status (they're probably just looking for financial info, corporate secrets and good porn).

Basically I'm just making sure you're realistic with him (it sounds like you're already on top of that). There's unfortunately no realistic way this info can be made to disappear from search engines altogether. Once it's made its way onto the open internet, "public record" is really just that.
posted by allterrainbrain at 12:05 AM on October 12, 2007

"...his information is out there and there's not much to be done about it..."

That right there sums this up pretty well. It's nearly impossible (or maybe completely impossible) to remove information from the Internet.

I'd say your best bet is to bury it with innocuous information. Find a way to get enough other things indexed with his name that it pushes anything HIV-related past the 5th page, or further. Most people don't dig much deeper than that. Unfortunately I don't have any advice on how to actually accomplish this.
posted by CrayDrygu at 1:30 PM on October 12, 2007

In many states, HIV status reporting to DoH is mandatory if the testing is done at a family services program, or health clinic (a note to the wise for those receiving tests).

I just wanted to clarify this, because the situation is changing a bit and the reporting is broader than this comment makes it seem. CDC now requires states to report HIV cases by name when they are diagnosed, regardless of where they are diagnosed. A few states were holdouts to this, but as the formulas for receiving federal dollars for treating HIV have been tied to the directive, almost all have now moved to names-based reporting. Labs are one of the reporting agencies, so even if your Dr. says that she will not report your name to the Health Dept, if your name is on the form, it will be reported.

If you are concerned about not having your name reported to the CDC if you test positive for HIV you should either get tested under a false name or get tested at an anonymous program. There are no longer confidential programs. You will almost certainly have to provide your name in order to get treatment.
posted by OmieWise at 11:02 AM on October 15, 2007

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