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Merkel on Google hangout stirs up controversy

avatar  Niko Härting

„For all middlemen, the clock is ticking and the question of value is looming. Every time Google makes a direct connection, a middleman’s value is dimished.“ (Jeff Jarvis, „What Would Google Do?“, 2009, p. 74)

A Simple Idea

Chancellor Merkel’s plan to use Google+ Hangouts for a live online chat shows how true Jarvis‘ observation is. Merkel is up for re-election in September. And her plan to use Google+ Hangouts instead of television as a platform is strirring up controversy in Germany.

In an unusual move, the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg (MABB) has published a press statement raising two questions:

  1. Does a live chat on Google hangout require a broadcast licence?
  2. Would Merkel be able to obtain such a licence with respect to the constitutional ban on state-controlled broadcasting stations?

(in German only: „Stellungnahme der mabb zu Anfragen zum geplanten Live Chat der Bundeskanzlerin“, Pressemitteilung der mabb v. 4.4.2013)

A Little Background

In a country that saw Josepf Goebbels heading the Nazi’s „Ministry of Propaganda“, state control in media is a particularly touchy issue. When West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer wanted to establish a state-controlled TV station, he was stopped by the Federal Constitutional Court („Bundesverfassungsgericht“ = „BVerfG“) in 1961. In a landmark decision, the plans were declared unconstitutional (BVerfG, Urt. v. 28.2.1961 – 2 BvG 1/60 u. 2 BvG 2/60, BVerfGE 12, 205). Since then, Germany has developed a complicated and thoroughly balanced system of public radio and TV stations the „plurality“ of which is controlled by boards with members from various spheres of society – from political parties to trade unions and churches.

Due to the „plurality“ obligation, the broadcasting of a chat with Merkel by a public TV station would entitle her political opponent Steinbrück to equal treatment. With Google+ Hangouts being outside the scope of the public broadcasting system, Merkel does not only evade issues of plurality and equality. She also remains in full control of the chat and will not have to deal with unpleasant questions asked by public TV journalists.

Hangouts Beyond the Public Broadcasting System?

The MABB is the governing body for broadcast control in the federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg. And the licence question raised by MABB refers to the legal framework for broadcasting as laid town in the „Broadcast State Treaty“ (= „Rundfunkstaatsvertrag“), signed by the 16 German federal states. It provides for online services to be treated as broadcasting stations (and therefore needing a licence) when – amongst other conditions – at least 500 persons are able to use the service simultaneously.

The „500“ provision has, in the past, raised bizarre questions: It is, for example, unclear whether and (if yes) under which conditions a Twitter account with more than 500 followers needs a (costly) licence (in German „Twitter-Kanal als Rundfunk anmelden“, netzpolitik.org v. 15.10.2010). And, according to a report, as recently as in September 2012, the Bavarian broadcasting authority held that the use of Google+ Hangouts for the streaming of a „blogger camp“ required a licence (in German „Bloggercamp-Hangout ist Rundfunk – Merkel-Hangout ist kein Rundfunk: ‚Freispruch‘ für die Kanzlerin?“ Ichsagmal.com v. 6.4.2013).

Convergence and Checks & Balances

The line between traditional broadcasting and online media is more and more blurred. The rules that are trying to draw the line are correctly called „stone age laws“ (in German „Merkel darf bei Google „abhängen'“, The Wall Street Journal v. 5.4.2013). This does, however, not answer the question whether there should not be some checks and balances against an uncontrolled use of online services by politicians that threatens to undermine the important role played by critical journalism in a pluralistic, free society.

 

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Mehr zum Autor: RA Prof. Niko Härting ist namensgebender Partner von HÄRTING Rechtsanwälte, Berlin. Er ist Mitglied der Schriftleitung Computer und Recht (CR) und ständiger Mitarbeiter vom IT-Rechtsberater (ITRB) und vom IP-Rechtsberater (IPRB). Er hat das Standardwerk zum Internetrecht, 5. Aufl. 2014, verfasst und betreut den Webdesign-Vertrag in Redeker (Hrsg.), Handbuch der IT-Verträge (Loseblatt). Demnächst erscheint "Datenschutz-Grundverordnung" von ihm.

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