France is considering a law that would force Google to reveal its most closely guarded secret — its search algorithm.
The Financial Times reports that a proposal currently making its way through the French senate could force Google to publish the details of how its search rankings are calculated.
Google, understandably, is not happy.
And, just to be clear, there is almost zero chance that Google will go along with this.
It’s not even clear that the French seriously think that this might happen. Rather, it makes more sense as a bargaining chip: “Peut-on parvenir à un compromis?”
Relationships between the American company and European governments have become increasingly acrimonious over the past few years. In Europe, Google has variously been accused of tax avoidance, conflicts with publishers, and anti-trust allegations. The European Court of Justice also required that Google honour a new “right to be forgotten” for search results on Google. (The company previously stopped offering search results in Spain when regulators turned against it there — publishers ended up begging it to come back.)
In America, Google is the undisputed leader of the search industry, with a 78% share of the market. But in Europe, this dominance is even more pronounced: Google has a search share on the continent of more than 91%.
This unassailable position has made the company has been the subject of a five-year anti-trust investigation, with a “statement of objections” potentially ready on Wednesday, according to the FT. France’s move to legislate against Google comes in addition to this.
What France proposes nominally would ensure Google isn’t abusing its dominant position by allowing companies to see how the algorithm is constructed, so they could be reassured it isn’t unfairly biased. The search giant says that doing so would damage the company.
“Revealing our algorithms — our intellectual property — would lead to the gaming of our results, which would be a bad experience for users,” a company spokesperson says The company suggests that by making the algorithm public, it would allow unscrupulous actors to manipulate the search results to ensure they come out on top, at the expense of consumers being able to find what they are actually after.
Doing so would also harm Google commercially. A key reason it has grown to the size it has is because consumers simply prefer it to the other options out there. By publishing Google’s commercial secrets, it gives competitors an advantage.
This isn’t the first time Europe has gone after Google’s algorithm either. Germany asked the company to give it up back in September 2014, and it refused.
Though Google has expanded beyond its search-only roots, search is still central to its success. It’s not unthinkable that Google might pull out of France entirely before surrendering its most closely-guarded commercial secret: Just as it did in Spain.
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