French Senate wants Google to promote its search competitors

French senators have amended a stodgy economics bill with a rider that would require Google to advertise three competitors on its homepage, but stops short of explicitly requiring the search engine to disclose its algorithms.

The amendment, added Thursday to an economic growth, activity and equality bill, calls for any search engine likely to have a structural effect on the online economy to provide users with a way to consult at least three competing search engines from its homepage, and to ensure that it does not favor its own services over those of competitors

The wording clearly targets Google, without naming it, and comes on the heels of the European Commission’s charge that Google favors its comparison shopping service over those of competing search engines.

The bill going through the French senate now also requires economically powerful search engines to provide information about how they classify or index websites, and forbids them from requiring software developers or device manufacturers to exclusively use their services.

It charges the French telecommunications and postal regulatory authority, ARCEP, with policing the rules, and gives it the power to levy fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s worldwide turnover for infractions.

Surprisingly, this amendment isn’t the work of the Socialist Party currently in power, but of usually business-friendly senators from the right and center-right. It was proposed by Catherine Morin-Desailly of the Union of Independent Democrats (UDI) and co-signed by Chantal Jouanno, also of the UDI; Bruno Retailleau, leader in the Senate of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party, and two other UMP senators, Jean-Claude Lenoir and Jean Bizet. Jouanno was formerly secretary of state for ecology then minister of sport in Sarkozy’s government.

“Fear of the monopoly power of big American websites is growing in France and Europe,” they wrote in a text explaining their amendment. “The behavior of certain powerful players is threatening the pluralism of ideas and opinions, harming innovation, and obstructing the freedom to do business.”

It’s become urgent, they said, to provide a legislative framework to regulate search engines, given the negative consequences of some of their practices for French businesses.

The senators warned that search engine users place too much confidence in the order in which search results are presented, believing the algorithms used by the search engines to be objective and infallible. Users often lack the means to determine how the results are produced or, because of exclusivity agreements, to compare them with those of other engines, the senators added.

By playing with the parameters used by their algorithms, or with their terms and conditions of use, search engines have the ability to refuse to index any website, in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner, they said.

“Such dependence on ultra-dominant market players is bad for the dynamism of the French economy,” they concluded.

Senators’ unanimous adoption of the amendment Thursday night by no means makes it law. The bill it amends has already been adopted by the French National Assembly. The Senate will vote on the entirety of the bill on May 12, and then it will be up to a joint committee of the Assembly and the Senate to reconcile the differences between the two texts.

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