German Official: Google Should Reveal Its Ranking Algorithm

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One of the unanswered questions in the ongoing European-Google antitrust saga is what concrete changes or concessions critics want (or will accept) from Google. One of those things may have just come to light in a Financial Times interview with German justice minister Heiko Maas.

Maas asserts in the interview that Google needs to become more “transparent” about its algorithm and would like the company to divulge the formula it uses to rank search results. My hunch is that Google would politely decline such a proposal.

It’s essentially the same as asking Coke to make public its soft-drink formula. Not going to happen.

Google has repeatedly said in the past that its algorithm is non-public for competitive reasons and to prevent spammers from gaming search results. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a remedy that might work for all parties. But the algorithm is probably not part of that.

One of the ongoing challenges for Google’s European critics has been to show consumer harm as opposed to harm to publishers’ vested interests from Google’s alleged abuses. It’s very challenging to convincingly make this “consumer harm” case though perhaps not impossible.

In addition to Google, the FT article goes on to discuss the NSA surveillance scandal, European privacy laws and the current ban on Uber in Germany pending trial.

There’s no question that some of what’s playing out in a technical-legal way in a European regulatory framework is political and reflects a desire to restrain US-based companies, which have come to dominate the internet globally.

One part of the FT-Maas interview discusses the possibility that Germany or Europe might try and break up or “unbundle” Google into smaller companies. Maas tells the FT:

This is always the last resort. There are currently several endeavours in this regard at both the European and member state levels. Court proceedings are under way as well. So I would say that we have not yet reached the point where we need to start talking about unbundling. It would make more sense, including in the interests of competition and the European IT market, to achieve a reasonable consensus.

As European publishers become more aggressive in their demands — especially after they successfully lobbied to kill the recent settlement proposal — it’s looking more like Google will be compelled to go through some sort adversarial process rather than be able to settle the case on terms acceptable to all sides.

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