The humanitarian impact of European laws targeting Google News

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David Scales and John Brownstein from Healthmap discuss why laws aimed at news aggregators will have an unintended impact on mapping emerging health threats.

On October 20, 2010, the HealthMap system detected a report about watery diarrhea in Haiti from Google News. Within 72 hours, HealthMap went live with a dedicated webpage mapping the spread of cholera there. Unfortunately it may not be possible to map future health threats so easily because some proposed European laws will increase the costs and erect barriers to such non-profit relief work if ultimately passed.

HealthMap and other non-governmental humanitarian efforts rely on Google News for data. Google’s free product collects news articles in newspapers, radio and TV from around the world and sends it electronically, making it cheap and easy to mine for information about infectious diseases like cholera or human rights abuses in Syria.

Yet this work is threatened by proposed copyright legislation that would raise costs and invite more red tape. On November 30th, the German Bundestag had its first reading of a draft law proposing to extend copyrights to require news aggregators like Google News or HealthMap to pay for access to articles. While proponents of the law state that Google should pay for linking to articles, dissenters see this as an attempt to prop up the failed business model of a declining industry. One critic, Jan Malinowski, the head of the Information Society Department at the Council of Europe, described these laws as the equivalent of “proposing policy measures to stop the industrial revolution in the interest of the equine trade.” France and Italy are contemplating emulating the draft German law and The Economist recently reported that Austria and Switzerland are considering doing the same.

Lost in this discussion are the potential unintended consequence of these laws. Media aggregation has become a well-established, powerful tool for the detection and monitoring emerging infectious diseases, monitoring conflicts and environmental disasters. For instance, the foremost existing surveillance of the crisis in Syria, Syria Tracker, also depends on the availability of news aggregation. Its strength is not in any individual article, but in their aggregation, creating a mosaic of risk that provides actionable intelligence to responders on the ground.

HealthMap, where we work, is among the leading epidemic detection technologies relying on secondary use of aggregated media information. We comb through thousands of articles a day, extracting those containing information on infectious diseases, and putting this information on a map – for free – at These laws would increase our costs dramatically. While a German publisher claimed that potential charges would be low, stating that “publishers don’t want to hinder aggregation; they want to foster it. The only thing we want to stop is aggregation at the price of zero.” Unfortunately, advocates of these laws do not seem to realize some of the most innovative aggregation, crowdsourcing and secondary use projects would be extinguished at any price. If we were required to pay for every article our technology combs through, paying a fraction of a cent per article would still put us out of business.

Indeed, our ability to gather infectious disease information has already been adversely affected by similar restrictions to Google News. Belgium has prohibited indexing of its newspapers by Google News since 2007. Recently, 150 of Brazil’s largest newspapers (making up 90% of the country’s circulation) also opted out of Google News. HealthMap has detected fewer epidemic events in Brazil and Belgium in light of these actions. This puts citizens in those countries unnecessarily at risk by compromising the flow of real-time information available to health officials and the public.

We are not the only ones facing this problem. While the potential price structure has yet to be released in any of the proposed laws, the costs of using media aggregation are likely to exceed the budgets of humanitarian organizations generating these data. Google has warned that if fees are charged in France it “would consequently be forced to stop indexing the French sites.” Some think Google is bluffing, that its deep pockets will enable it to withstand the increased costs. We will not be so lucky; neither will many others.

Malinowski warned that “caution to avoid otherwise unforeseen consequences should be in the second nature of policymakers.” If these draft European laws pass, data gathering during humanitarian emergencies will be even more difficult. Keeping these data open will not only foster innovation, but it could be vital to rapidly shepherding the right resources to the right place during a crisis. The draft German law explicitly states that it “should not be misunderstood as a protection offered by policy makers for an old-fashioned, obsolete business model.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what it seems to be.

David Scales is a research fellow with HealthMap at Boston Children’s Hospital. John Brownstein is co-founder of HealthMap and an Associate Professor with the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

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