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German court: Google can't favor government's heath website

February 10, 2021

Topping Google's search rankings is the dream of online publishers far and wide. Germany's government found a shortcut to the summit for its new health website, but a court in Munich has dragged it back down for now.

Screenshot of the front page of the gesund.bund.de website funded by the German Health Ministry.
Gesund.bund.de will remain online, but its preferential spot at the top of German Google searches looks in jeopardyImage: gesund.bund.de

In November, Google and the Health Ministry launched a cooperation to steer German-language searches about the 160 most common illnesses to a government-funded website.

"Anyone who Googles about their health should land on our government site, and find the information that they need there," Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters, standing alongside Google's vice president for Central Europe, Philipp Justus. Though the plan predated the pandemic, Spahn said COVID-19 had highlighted its importance "as if through a magnifying glass."

"Gesund.bund.de should become the central port of call for reliable health information on the internet," he said.

Pk Gesundheitsinformationen im Internet | Jens Spahn und Philipp Justus
Spahn (right) and Google's Justus only launched the partnership three months agoImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

This would be achieved not by changing Google search rankings, strictly speaking. Instead, above the ordinary search results, the Gesund.bund.de entry would appear in a special Google "Knowledge Panel."  Rather than optimizing its position on Google's algorithms, the goal of so many businesses and publications nowadays, the government in Berlin had found a way for its website to jump the queue.

Google is not only working with the German government to put relevant information in these Knowledge Panels. Depending on location and language, the chances are that a search like "sore throat COVID" right now will generate such a Knowledge Panel — containing information either from a domestic health agency or the World Health Organization (WHO).

'Constraining market competition for health sites'

But a state court in Munich provisionally shot down the deal on Wednesday.

In essence, it found that the ministry's bid to secure prominence for its information had been too successful, putting private providers of health information at an unfair disadvantage.

Hubert Burda Media, the company behind the NetDoktor.de website that tops many health search rankings on Google in German, filed the lawsuit. Hubert Burda was a longstanding president of the Association of German Magazine Publishers (the VDZ). Its managing director, Stephan Scherzer, told DW that the decision was a "meaningful step to securing a free press" in Germany.

Judge Gesa Lutz warned in her ruling that Google and the Health Ministry teaming up could put "serious private health websites" at risk financially and thus threaten "a reduction in freedom of the press and of opinion." She also found that Burda had adequately demonstrated that their case was urgent and that the deal was already hurting traffic and their bottom line.

"This puts a stop to the capriciousness of that digital platform deciding what information and what opinions citizens can see," said the VDZ's Scherzer. He said it was unacceptable for Google to showcase government-funded information above all offerings from the private press, "with no competition at all."

Stephan Scherzer
Scherzer and the VDZ say the website is outside the ministry's remitImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Google disputes this, however. Philipp Justus wrote in a blog post that showing Health Ministry information on certain illnesses did not impede other health site operators. "They will continue appearing in the search results along with a variety of other websites," Justus said.

First aid online, medical attention later

Little wonder the Health Ministry was interested in the project, or that successful online publishers took exception to it. Increasingly, "Dr. Google" staffs the front line of modern medicine around the world. 

Google is Germany's search engine of choice with more than 90% of all online searches (97% on mobile devices). And according to a Bitkom survey last year in Germany, 53% of people would typically search for their symptoms and information online before seeking medical help. A little like Moore's Law, the sheer volume of health-related searches on Google doubles every few years.

For publishers like NetDoktor, 90% of traffic comes via the search engine giant, generating crucial advertising revenue.

Artificial Intelligence and health care

Website itself was not under scrutiny

This case in Munich, which is still subject to review, was only looking at whether the deal put private publishers at an unfair commercial disadvantage. The legitimacy of the gesundheit.bund.de website or its Health Ministry funding was not in question. The court was also not considering whether a government should be allowed to strike such a deal with a company like Google, or whether there might be scope for abuse of power in some cases. 

The site offers health advice on all manner of issues, from potential COVID symptoms to migraines or cancer or athlete's foot. Though funded by the government, it is sourced from medical and academic research.

The Association of German Magazine Publishers sees the very product as problematic, whether Google helps promote it on search engines or not.

"The Health Ministry running its own specialist outlet with journalistic reporting on health issues is in no way reconcilable with the commitments to a free press in the constitution," Scherzer said. "We are therefore alarmed that the government is still trying to legally justify the website. Parliament absolutely must reject this unacceptable invasion into the media landscape."

As for the Health Ministry in Berlin, a spokeswoman told DW that it had "noted" Wednesday's provisional ruling: "When the decision is reviewed, the [ministry] will decide on the next steps. The offering of the national health portal itself is unaffected by this verdict."

In other words, the gesund.bund.de site will still be online and available — only perhaps a little trickier to find on Google. At least until the Californian giant tweaks its algorithms, or unless Spahn's ministry can beat the publishers fair and square on the SEO battlefields.

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Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam