As if current strict EU regulations affecting medicinal product advertising weren’t enough, now the Commission turns its attention to all websites containing health information.
Who: European Commission
When: Autumn 2001
In response to mounting concerns over the quality of health-related information on-line, the European Commission set up a “Workshop on Quality Criteria for Health Related Websites.” In September 2001 this produced draft “Guidelines for Quality Criteria” and invited comment by the end of October 2001. Now that this consultation period is ended, the final guidelines will be drawn up for publication as part of an official EU “Communication” in March 2002.
The draft Guidelines suggest “opt-in” as the minimum standard for personal data collection by way of health websites. But this is no more than a re-statement of the existing law across Europe thanks to the EU Data Protection Directive. This designates all data about a person relating to their health “sensitive personal data.” Such data cannot be legally collected or used in any way in the EU without the subject’s express prior consent (in other words an active request that the data should be processed as opposed to a mere failure to tick an opt-out box).
Separately the draft guidelines stipulate that the site must contain a clear statement as to the sources of all health-related information provided on the site and the date of its original publication. Where individuals are credited with providing health information, their credentials must be clearly stated. There must also be transparency as to the identity of the service provider and as to the purpose of the site. In particular it must be clearly stated that information is being provided and collected for a commercial purpose if this is the case.
A more radical proposal is that health sites must be upfront about how they are funded, identifying all sponsors, advertisers or grant providers. Sites must also be regularly and clearly updated, with the date clearly shown on each page. Also a separate section of the Guidelines is given over to “Accountability”. This requires that health sites provide facilities for user feedback and also appoint compliance officers for each site. Procedures for selection of editorial content must also be stated, with every effort made to ensure partnering and linking only with trustworthy and compliant organisations.
Why this matters:
Brussels officials accept that legal control of health sites content at EU level is not feasible, but it is hoped that the Guidelines will act as a “coherent European baseline.” This will encourage member states, the theory goes, to implement quality assurance measures, linked perhaps with local kitemark schemes, so that surfers can have confidence that visiting kitemarked health sites will not endanger their health!