French Senate Backs Bid To Force Google To Disclose Search Algorithm Workings

It’s been a bad week for Google in Europe, with the Competition Commission on Wednesday adopting a Statement of Objections regard its shopping comparison service — marking an escalation of a five-year long antitrust investigation. The Competition Commissioner also launched a parallel in-depth probe into Google’s mobile OS Android, following antitrust complains. Those high level processes could last years, and have the potential to result in multi-billion-dollar fines if Google can’t satisfy the EC.

Meanwhile in France, the upper house of parliament yesterday voted to support an amendment to a draft economy bill that would require search engines to display at least three rivals on their homepage. And also to reveal the workings of their search ranking algorithms to ensure they deliver fair and non-discriminatory results. Given that Google has a circa 90% share of the search market in France these amendments, although not specifically naming any companies, are aimed squarely at Mountain View.

The amendments are led by Senate member Catherine Morin-Desailly, who is also Chair of the Committee of Culture and Communication. Another amendment stipulating that one of the alternative search engines on display should be a French product was also supported. Le Figaro reports that France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, spoke against the amendments — arguing such interventions should be left to the EC. But Morin-Desailly made the case for urgency, in order to support homegrown businesses, saying European procedures are too slow.

Discussing the issue with the FT this week, Morin-Desailly said the aim of the amendments is to combat perceived bias in how Google operates its closed-box algorithms, which the accusation being that it uses this closed code to promote its own products ahead of rivals. “It’s a question of ensuring fairness,” she said. “Too many businesses view search engines as bottlenecks. The net is tightening around [Google].”

The lack of transparency when it comes to Google’s search ranking special sauce has got it into additional hot water in Europe in recent times, with the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling handed down by the European Court of Justice last May. The background there is Google’s algorithms had been foregrounding out-dated information about a Spanish citizen. He took the company to court and ultimately the ECJ ruled search engines are data controllers and therefore subject to European data protection law.

Google is now required to processes individual requests to de-list information attached to a specific name search, balanced against any public interest to know the info. Despite the ECJ forcing Google to make a change to its operations where personal data and private European citizens are concerned, the workings of its ranking algorithms — which buoy certain pieces of data, and keep them floating at the top of search results — remain in the shadows. It’s those internal workings which the French Senate is seeking to haul to the surface and to scrutiny, albeit with a focus on commerce and competition, rather than personal data.

Should the bill make it onto the statute books with these amendments intact, France’s Regulatory Authority for Electronic Communications and Posts (Arcep) would be able to impose a fine of up to 10% of total global revenue of a search engine business that fails to comply. However it’s unclear whether the law will pass. It’s had a rough ride thus far, with the French government resorting to a controversial veto to get it past the National Assembly in an earlier vote. The Senate will vote on the bill later this month, before it returns to the lower chamber for another vote.