Last week, the upper house of parliament in France voted in support of a new amendment to a proposed piece of economic legislation that would mandate all search engines to display information on at least three different search rivals on their homepage. Possibly even more significant, the amendment would require all search engines to reveal their proprietary ranking algorithms in an effort to ensure that all rankings are determined fairly and with no discriminatory biases.
On paper, the amendment will take action against any search engine operating in France, but with a 90 percent search share in the country, Google is the real target of the legislation. While French politicians claim the policy is all about ensuring a fair and equal environment for businesses, as well as the operational transparency of major online companies, the reality is that Google’s algorithm has been kept secret for a variety of practical reasons.
For Google, the secrecy of the algorithm is crucial to their capitalistic success. Should competitors have open access to the ranking algorithm, it would be painfully easy to develop very similar competing engines. From a user perspective, Google’s algorithm has been kept hidden in order to prevent spammers and malcontents from taking advantage of the system. Revealing the algorithm publicly would compromise both Google’s integrity and profitability.
Still, it doesn’t appear that France will let up any time soon. After all, this potential legislation is only the latest of a pattern of pressure put on Google by the European Union.
While Europe has been collectively distrustful of Google for several years now, the controversy began to escalate back in May of 2014, when the European Union officially made its “right to be forgotten” privacy ruling. The provision dictated that private residents would be able to submit requests to Google (and other search engines) to have specific links removed from databases. Should these links lead to compromising or no longer relevant information, and as long as the links are not determined to be necessary public information, the links must be removed.
In response to the new ruling, Google was forced to remove hundreds of thousands of links. Many in the European Union have declared this a victory for individual privacy, while most Google supporters claim this move is a step toward censorship and a step away from public information availability. Because Google is a longtime supporter of open information availability, the privacy ruling caused some serious damage to its mission.
For the past five years or so, the Competition Commission in Europe has been investigating Google for a purported violation of antitrust laws. Because the investigation has been long and arduous, it hasn’t gained significant momentum in the form of a concrete ruling. In order to accelerate and enhance the investigation, the EU released a Statement of Objections regarding Google’s shopping comparison service alongside a parallel investigation into Google’s mobile Android operating system.
These new statements and investigations show that Europe is serious about changing Google’s operating capacity. Many have theorized that Europe’s goal here is to break Google up into smaller companies, or at least force the company to reveal the details of the inner workings of its products.
This isn’t the first time Google has faced significant international pressure. In 2014, Google pulled out of China entirely after renegotiations with the Chinese government over censorship began to fail. The company closed its engineering offices in Russia back in January of 2014 after news that Russian Parliament was approving a new mandate regarding the storage of information on its citizens. After a so-called “Google Tax” was implemented in Spain, Google suspended its news service in the country entirely.
When threatened by censorship, regulation, or new financial requirements, Google has shown that it isn’t always willing to comply. While it has enjoyed international acclaim and usage for nearly 20 years, it’s willing to sacrifice a presence in individual companies if it means retaining its core integrity.
The timeline on the bill is not specific, but it must be voted on and passed for the bill to become law. There’s no guarantee that the bill will be passed into law, but the tone set by the European Union suggests that France is serious about stepping up efforts to throttle the dominance of the search engine giant. Should the bill become law, Google could face a penalty of up to 10 percent of its gross revenues should it fail to comply with the law’s mandates. Essentially, that means Google would be forced to publicly reveal its search algorithm, or face a harsh penalty.
In response to France’s legislation, assuming it passes, Google will likely choose to either pay the fine or leave France altogether. At this point, revealing its search algorithm is too risky and too compromising, and as we’ve seen, Google will not compromise on the values and policies it feels are important to user experience. As the EU and individual countries within it continue to put additional pressure on Google, it’s likely that the company will face similar dilemmas in the near future, and may be forced out of the European Union entirely.
If Google is forced to reveal its search algorithm, the entire world of SEO could change. With specific insight into how Google factors in things like external links and content quality, search marketers would easily be able to manipulate the system. On the other hand, if Google leaves the EU, it could be disastrous for Google’s international presence and availability.
No matter how things in Europe shape up, it’s bound to be an interesting ride. For those of us watching from the sidelines, it will be exciting to see how these international pressures play out. For the leaders at Google, however, the pressure of the coming months must be terrifying.