On 17 December 2020, the media authority of the German federal state of Schleswig-Holstein initiated legal proceedings against Google Ireland Ltd. under Germany’s new Interstate Media Treaty (Medienstaatsvertrag – “MStV”, downloadable here, German only). The authority (Landesmedienanstalt) is investigating whether Google’s treatment of information from a “National Health Portal” offered by the German Federal Ministry of Health (“Health Ministry”) constitutes a violation of the MStV.
Google’s search engine displayed information from the National Health Portal in a highlighted info box, called a knowledge panel, when users of the search engine searched for medical keywords (cf. the press release on the case by the media authority, also available in English at the bottom of the page). This was intended to make reliable health information more accessible to Germans (cf. the Federal Government’s report on the start of the “cooperation” here – German only). Privately owned news publishers objected to what they considered to be a violation of the freedom of the press because the links to health information offered by them moved further down the search results page due to the insertion of the “knowledge panel” at the top of the page. After the media authority opened its investigation, and an opposition party filed a question in Parliament, the Federal Government clarified in its response that there was no cooperation agreement between it and Google, and that Google merely decided to use the National Health Portal’s open interface as a result of the site’s SEO efforts, which were common industry practice.
The MStV requires “media intermediaries” to provide information on the criteria or algorithms they apply in selecting and favoring content (Art. 93 MStV). To ensure diversity of opinion, media intermediaries having “a particularly strong influence on the perceptibility of journalistically edited content” must not deviate from the criteria they have published without an objectively justified reason (Sec. 94 MStV).
These are the first proceedings of which we are aware based on the MStV, which entered into force on 7 November 2020. We discussed a draft of the law in a previous blog post.
On 10 February 2021, the publisher of a health news portal, Netdoktor.de, obtained a preliminary injunction against Google and the Ministry from the District Court of Munich (press release) under competition law. The court considers the “cooperation” to be an anticompetitive act because it might put reliable private sector health portals out of business, thus leading to a reduction in diversity of both media and opinion.