Today is Google more trustworthy than humanity

State media treatyDispute over Google's recommendation of trustworthy information

The timing is remarkable: as soon as the ink has dried under the new State Media Treaty, the first possible procedure is about to begin. It could open a new chapter in internet regulation. The old world of media regulation could now try to enforce new rules of the game for the public that internet companies like Google create.

With the reform of the former interstate broadcasting agreement to the new interstate media agreement, the federal states expanded the competencies of the state media authorities to include certain offers on the Internet. In particular, those that contain journalistic-editorial content. Immediately after receiving the new competencies, the Medienanstalt Hamburg / Schleswig-Holstein (MA HSH) will examine a case against Google. What has long been in doubt can now be clarified: whether the small state media authorities can regulate the global corporation Google, for example. And whether network media regulation in Germany will be a matter for the federal states, while in Europe the first bars of the digital services law will soon be played. A course of action by the media authority in this case could, however, raise much more far-reaching questions and change the way social networks take action against false information.

Reliable information in a prominent place

What happened? A week ago, Jens Spahn announced a collaboration between his Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) and Google. The ministry is running a fairly new website, which is supposed to provide reliable information on many diseases. This “national health portal” is to be kept constantly up to date in cooperation with scientific institutions.

As has so far not been able to achieve a position among the first hits with the search engine monopoly Google, as Spahn emphasized, the information on the portal is now placed in a privileged position thanks to a cooperation between the BMG and Google. In addition to (in the desktop view) or via (on the smartphone) the Google search results for a disease or symptoms, contents of the state health portal are now displayed in info boxes and the page is prominently linked. We have reported on it in detail here.

The info boxes, which Google calls "Knowledge Panel", are supposed to display the content you are looking for directly in Google search. You no longer need to click on a search result - the search engine delivers the information you are looking for directly from a verified and trustworthy source. Many people are familiar with the principle of knowledge panels, so that when searching for celebrities, Google displays information from Wikipedia in an info box.

The publishers are foaming

One day after the start of the cooperation, the German publishers were foaming. Some of them are themselves active in the field of online health information through the acquisition of services such as Jameda or NetDoktor. Google discriminates against the offers of the press publishers by displaying the knowledge panel in front of the publisher's offers in the search results.

"Such a displacement of the private press by a state media offer on a digital mega-platform is a unique and novel attack on the freedom of the press", said the President of the Association of German Magazine Publishers (VDZ), Rudolf Thiemann. Alone, that The publishers do not like the BMG providing health information on a website. It is incompatible with the “freedom of the media”. To let Google help you with the dissemination of the offer is definitely going too far. Thiemann's vice-president Philipp Welte, who is also the director of the Hubert Burda Media publishing house, also makes a big hit: "The ministry is downgrading the free market-based health portals and overriding all mechanisms of free information and thus the free formation of opinions in our democracy." Just last year had taken over his publishing house NetDoktor, a website that prepares health information journalistically and editorially.

The media authority checks

Another day later, the MA HSH announced on Twitter that it would examine the initiation of proceedings against Google. When asked, the press office specified that the proceedings were against Google Germany GmbH, not against Google's European headquarters in Ireland, as is often the case with data protection proceedings.

And why does a state media authority check the Google search? The various new tasks of the state media authorities within the framework of the State Media Treaty include, among other things, the control of digital "media intermediaries". Platforms such as Google or Facebook belong to this new platform category, as they aggregate journalistic-editorial offers and present them publicly. According to the State Treaty, you are therefore obliged to ensure diversity of opinion.

Accordingly, Google must not discriminate against journalistic and editorial media for no reason. So-called freedom from discrimination prevails: no offer may simply be downgraded or - and that is the crux of the matter - be privileged if this hampers other offers. The media authority therefore wants to check whether Google highlights the national health portal as one of the many journalistic and editorial offers.

Is the info box privilege a violation of non-discrimination? That would only be the case if the portal counts as a journalistic-editorial offer. Because, as the MA HSH explained in response to our request, that makes the difference between knowledge panels on health topics and other information boxes. If, at the end of the proceedings, all media outlets come to an agreement that there has been a violation by Google, and if Google does not end the privileged status of the portal, there is a risk of a fine of up to 500,000 euros.

A question of definition

According to the State Media Treaty, there is discrimination in two scenarios. The former form of discrimination is when the search engine's normal selection criteria are deviated from without sufficient justification. However, Google and the BMG emphasize that the knowledge panels are an additional offer and have no influence on the search algorithm that determines the placement in the search hits. The second scenario occurs when offers are “directly or indirectly inappropriately systematically hindered”.

The highlighting of non-journalistic-editorial offers such as Wikipedia by media intermediaries is apparently no problem for the media authority. However, the MA HSH informs that the health boxes are an "obvious" privilege of an offer that is possibly comparable to the other journalistic offers. The agency can therefore act proactively without waiting for a complaint from another journalistic provider.

However, one can also be divided about this assessment, as the professor of media theory and media law Marc Liesching notes. For him it is open whether there is really any discrimination:

“Here, the official justification of the State Media Treaty indicates that the different treatment of content and offers is also part of the constitutionally protected entrepreneurial freedom of the providers of media intermediaries. If offers and information on health issues still appear in the general search hit ranking, just not as prominently as others, this does not necessarily have to be seen as discrimination, especially if special, journalistic offers-oriented search categories such as 'Google News' or 'Headlines' by the health information from are kept free and this information is visualized separately in a knowledge panel. "

How far the freedoms of platforms go also depends on the design of the entire offer. The design could make all the difference. In addition, it is questionable whether the national health portal as a journalistic-editorial offer falls into the same category as media offers or whether it should be viewed more like Wikipedia as general health information.

The Ministry of Health speaks of an error

A press spokesman for the BMG explains to us that the publishers' criticism is based on a "wrong premise":

“The actual search results are not affected in any way. Rather, as in other subject areas, Google only displays so-called knowledge panels. This includes a reference to the federal health portal Unlike other health portals, this portal is not financed by advertising, but is based solely on scientific expertise. It makes sense of the cooperation with Google to make this technically well-founded information on health topics more easily accessible. "

Whether these factors are actually decisive for the media authority not classifying the offer as journalistic-editorial and therefore not competing with other offers remains an open question.

Google has not yet responded to our request.

Fact checks could also be affected by the rules

This is followed by a consideration of what this dispute could mean for the public on the Internet. What if certain reliable and high-quality journalistic-editorial offers can no longer be highlighted because of the State Media Treaty, because other offers are indirectly disadvantaged as a result? How can platforms make information directly available that may be classified as editorial-journalistic offerings? This puts the strategy of the big platforms on disinformation in a different light.

In the last few months, the major social networks Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok have increasingly attached notices to certain content. For example, links to journalistic or government sources such as the Robert Koch Institute, often also to Wikipedia. This procedure has long been used as a means of dealing with inadequate, misleading, misleading or simply incorrect information.

Misinformation and disinformation are spreading across the networks at an extremely high rate. Subsequent fact checks and basic information that clears up the myths and rumors often cannot keep up and reach far fewer users: inside than sensational false information. This is why more and more posts on topics about which there is a lot of false information are provided with a reference to a reliable and trustworthy source. For example on COVID-19 or, as in the case of Donald Trump's Twitter feed, where individual tweets are pinned to information that classifies the statements.

The question arises whether, in the light of the new discrimination rules, it will make a difference whether conspiracy videos are countered by a link to Wikipedia or by a link to a journalistic offer. Are Facebook partnerships with independent fact checkers, such as with the CORRECT! V research center, no longer possible because there are other media that also deal with disinformation?

Possible unintended consequences

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have only just begun to take on more political responsibility for the discourses on their platforms. They move away from the position of radical free speech, according to which everyone can say anything and they are only a neutral platform for communication. Their design and their business models prioritize a lot of communication, a lot of interaction. This is why the sometimes dangerous mechanisms only come about.

To counteract this, they classify unfounded misinformation with clues. During the US election, for example, this was the case with the claim that postal voting generally led to mass electoral fraud. This could increase the quality of the discourse, but it is a tightrope walk. You have the house right over large parts of the democratic forum and must avoid an abuse of power. But doing nothing can also be a kind of abuse of power.

In doing so, they rely on journalistic media to research and check this information. However, it could turn out to be a disadvantage for other media if they use reliable media as a partner against false information and help them gain more visibility through privileged presentations.

This strategy against disinformation might then be over by next year's general election in Germany. The actions of the north German media authority could have further effects than is initially obvious.

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About the author

Leonard Kamps

Leonard is an intern with us from October to December 2020. He is a communications scientist by training and is studying "Media and Political Communication" at the Freie Universität Berlin. He also works in the research group "Politics of Digitization" at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin. His favorite topics are surveillance, content and platform regulation and media change, with the question of how the digital transformation is affecting the democratic public. Accessible by email and Twitter.
Published 11/18/2020 at 8:01 PM