New German Law Includes Voice Assistants Under Changed Media Regulations

Germany will likely pass a new law for regulating online media that will count voice assistants as ‘user interfaces’ and attempt to make them more accountable to the country’s rules. The Medienstaatsvertrag, Interstate Media Treaty in English, is part of Germany’s attempt to address the huge changes in the media landscape, according to a report on Lexology.

Voice as Intermediary News Outlet

The new law tries to codify different ways people interact with online media to regulate them. The idea is to address the rapidly expanding variety of companies in the space. There are three categories under the new rules. Media platforms are identified as services that provide news similar to broadcast media and other news outlets; media intermediaries meanwhile include social networks with news coverage, search engines, and platforms for sharing videos. The last category is called user interfaces and encompasses any service that provides access to a media platform, including voice assistants, along with the screen on a smart television.

The new law has been hotly debated in Germany, with two public consultations drawing more than 1,200 comments, far higher than usual. The draft of the law was approved by Germany in December, but it won’t go into effect until later this year. Germany sent the draft of the law, which includes aspects of new EU rules, to the European Commission in January. The commission is now reviewing the law.

The foundation of the law is that user interface providers will be required to have a representative in Germany or the European Economic Area who can be sued in court for violations. Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Siri voice assistants would all fall under the user interface banner. The actual potential violations under the law are largely about identifying facts or opinions and ensuring that technical tools aren’t used to trick users into forming a specific opinion. What is significant about the law when it comes to voice assistants is how it explicitly includes them for the purpose of the regulation, an important marker as they become more common and mainstream. Regardless of its final form, that sets a new standard for how governments may think about the voice tech space going forward.

European Regulation Debate

Voice assistants aren’t isolated to just this law in Germany. Last year, the interior ministry endorsed allowing information gathered by voice assistants on smart devices to be used by criminal investigators. Debate over how investigators gather data and digital privacy overall is far from settled, in Germany or any other country. But, Europe, with its GDPR system, is in some ways at the center of that larger conversation.

Questions about regulating voice assistants came to the forefront last summer after reports came out that contractors were hearing recordings made by Google Assistant and other voice assistants. Germany even officially ordered Google to pause its program so it could investigate. Google actually stopped the program across the EU, though it claimed it was voluntary. The EU started a similar investigation over Amazon’s contractor program with Alexa. Voice assistant developers made changes in how voice assistant recordings are monitored in the wake of those reports, but self-regulation is clearly not going to be where it ends for them. The debate about how best to regulate voice assistants is far from over, but that it will be something considered by lawmakers going forward is all but certain.


Germany Debates Bringing Voice Assistant Data to Courtrooms

Google & Apple Hit Pause on Sharing Voice Assistant Recordings with Contractors

Amazon Discussing Alexa Recordings Privacy with EU Regulators