Germany proposes Europe’s first diversity rules for social media platforms

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 29, 2019

Tighter regulation of social media and other online services in now under discussion in several European countries, as well as in the UK where the government has released a white paper outlining its proposed approach to tackling online harm. Here, Professor Natali HelbergerPaddy Leerssen and Max Van Drunen from the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam argue that a German proposal to impose diversity obligations on social media platforms’ algorithms deserves more scrutiny. 

The proposed law

Germany continues to spearhead the regulation of social media. Last year the country made headlines with the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (‘network enforcement law’ or ‘NetzDG’), the most ambitious attempt to regulate platform content moderation processes in Europe to date. Now, the German Broadcasting Authority (Rundfunkkomission) has proposed another law targeting social media platforms, though it has has received far less attention than the NetzDG –and far less than it deserves. Perhaps this is due to its even more confounding name: Staatsvertraglicher Neuregelungen zu Rundfunkbegriff / Zulassungspflicht, Plattformregulierung und Intermediäre – or “Medienstaatsvertrag for short . To our knowledge, this is the first regulatory proposal in Europe, and perhaps the world, to impose binding diversity obligations on social media platforms’ ranking and sorting algorithms.

This decision comes in response to widespread concerns about the dominance of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. While substantial disagreement remains about the precise nature of the problem, it has become clear that these platforms have become highly influential in steering audience attention, and providing a gateway for users to receive all kinds of information — and that their commercial interests in optimizing algorithms for ad revenue may not always coincide with the democratic ideal of a diverse public sphere. In response, numerous regulators, NGOs and academics have argued that social media platforms should incorporate diversity into their algorithms (e.g. here and here). The Rundfunkkommission, however, is the first to address these concerns with a binding regulatory proposal.

In short, the new law would regulate algorithmic diversity and transparency in two categories of services: (1) “video platforms” such as Netflix and Hulu and (2) so-called “media intermediaries”, which covers a wide range of online services including social media platforms and search engines. This post describes the key features of this regime, and then discusses its significance for online media policy.

Read the full piece here