[Germany] Court “Stop exposing Google’s top health portal.”

Is it natural that information on state-run sites is exposed to the top of search engines? 구글 검색 순위 올리기 Should information on specialized areas such as medicine and health provided by the government be exposed first because it is highly reliable?


In an injunction filed over Google’s top exposure to the health information portal site (http://gesund.bund.de) of the German Federal Ministry of Health (BMG), a German court ordered “temporary suspension of cooperation between the government and Google.” This is because giving the government the upper hand in the information provided by the government can damage fair market competition and diversity of public opinion.


Google collaborates with the Federal Ministry of Health in Germany

The German Federal Ministry of Health launched a health information portal site service on September 1 last year.[Figure 1] Information on definitions, causes, symptoms, and treatments for various diseases, as well as new medical policies such as general health common sense and die elektronische Patientenakte, is introduced. Health Minister Jens Spahn said, “Now COVID-19 is showing how important quality health information is. Only those who know can protect themselves and others. With this national health portal, we are trying to provide citizens with information about health as well as COVID-19 quickly, easily, and reliably. Those who search for health on Google will be guided to this site, he said. The site has partners Robert Koch-Institut (RKI), Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (IQWiG), Institut für Qualiẗt und Wirtschaftlichkit im Gesundheitswesen, Germany’s Cancer Research Center (DKFZ, Kiformshenstorsi). In addition, for the reliability of the content, the quality evaluation criteria include whether △ is based on the latest medical knowledge, △ is free from commercial and political interests, △ is easy to understand, and △ information is expressed neutrally.



Initially, it was recognized as a good service for citizens’ public health, but two months later, in early November, the controversy began when the Federal Ministry of Health and Google announced a policy to expose the site’s information to the top of the search results. Google Germany said on November 10, “In the health care sector, it is important to connect information to reliable sources as soon as possible. Regarding COVID-19, we worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Federal Health Ministry to ensure that important and confirmed information is always exposed to the top when searching for related information, he said. “When searching Google in Germany, we provide health information in the form of a so-called ‘Knowledge Panel’.” In the meantime, when searching for certain diseases on Google in Germany, search results based on algorithms other than the top advertisement have been searched. However, the move highlighted government portal information as a separate layout and exposed it to the top.[Figure 2]




[Figure 2] When Google in Germany searched for “migrain” as an example, information on the government health portal site was exposed in a separate box at the top right. <Source – Re-quote in Deutsche Bundestag Academic Report>


Criticism of “concerns of political influence”

When the Federal Ministry of Health and Google’s cooperation was revealed, concerns began to emerge in the media industry. First of all, it is a criticism of the political independence of information as it is operated by the state. For example, the government portal does not contain arguments or criticisms currently being made about health care policies. There are concerns that if the share of the government’s health portal increases in the long run, unilateral promotion of the government’s health policy could eventually be exposed uncritically. Netzpolitik, a digital media outlet, said, “In the case of electronic patient records, it was not mentioned that federal information protection officers were judging it illegally,” adding, “The Ministry of Health’s diagnosis that patients should be protected from inaccurate medical information online may be correct. However, portals that do not deal with disputes cannot solve the problem,” he criticized.


There is also criticism that it discriminates against private operators. In Germany, where professional media by field is developed, quality health portal sites are already in operation. While they compete in the market, giving priority to information that contains state finances hinders private competition and discriminates against private operators. Thomas Fuchs, head of the Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein regions’ state media office, may have violated the anti-discrimination clause of the Media State Convention. The Internet platform can deviate from the usual search algorithm only on practical grounds, and no one should unfairly interfere with it,” he said, adding that it is verifying whether the collaboration is illegal. According to the revised Media State Convention, media intermediaries (Medienintermediarr) should not discriminate against media content. Therefore, Google’s act of putting government portal information at the top can be interpreted as an act of excluding and discriminating against other content.


Netdogter (Netdoktor.de), a health portal run by German media giant Hubert Burda Media, filed an injunction with the Munich District Court, claiming that Google and government cooperation violate cartel laws. NetDoggter feared that the inflow of visitors to its site has already decreased since Google and the government cooperation, and that a prolonged period would cause great damage to private companies. Wort & bild, who runs the health magazine Apotheken Umschau, filed the same lawsuit with the Berlin District Court.


Court Says ‘Stop Exposing Top Government Information’

Citing an injunction filed by NetDoggter on February 10, a district court in Munich, Germany, ordered a temporary suspension of government cooperation with Google. The court said, “The government’s portal operation is not a pure governance activity, but an economic activity that must be verified at the level of cartel law.” The cooperation between Google and the government has resulted in shrinking competition in the health portal market. Also, “Google and the Federal Ministry of Health cooperation cannot be exceptionally allowed for qualitative efficiencies, such as reducing users’ search costs or improving citizens’ understanding of information. This is because the advantages of this collaboration are not sufficiently greater than the disadvantages. In particular, it rejected high-quality private medical portals, which can threaten the diversity of media and thoughts, he said. This decision drew attention by referring not only to competition in the private market, but also to the diversity of media and ideas. Court spokesman Judge Anne-Kristin Fricke said the cartel law “contributes to diversity of media and thoughts by banning exclusive agreements.”


This judgment was also mentioned in a report by the Federal Assembly. On February 16, a week after the court’s decision, the Federal Assembly published a research report titled “Cooperation between the Federal Ministry of Health and Google based on press freedom, competition laws, and media state agreements.” The report said, “The Federal Health Department’s operation of the information portal is not an unfair intervention in freedom of speech,” but judged, “In fact, cooperation with Google, which can lead to monopoly status, may unfairly violate freedom of speech and the principle of ‘Staatsferne’.” In addition, it was analyzed that the government health portal emphasized the reliability of information, and the reliability of quality health information sites that already exist is generalized and undermined.


Looking at the debate in Germany over the national health information portal site, you can find media and information consumption behavior different from that of Korea. If you search for a specific disease on Naver, a domestic portal site, the contents of the National Health Information Portal of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are searched at the top. It is emphasized by a separate layout called ‘Intelligence Encyclopedia’. In such a search system, the information provided by the government is consumed as the most reliable and reliable information. The government’s act of providing information itself is also recognized as a national obligation in terms of public health.


Germany is a bit different. There is a firm suspicion that the information or media provided by the government cannot guarantee independence. It is a historically formed reasonable doubt. In addition, collaboration with Google, which has a 97.6% share of German search engines and virtually monopolizes online, is feared to accelerate the monopoly of government information. This is also what happens because high-quality health media with expertise are firmly established in the market. This is evidenced by the fact that it is not the medical community but the media media industry that deals fiercely with the issue.