Google to pay France €1.1m over hotel rankings practices

The company has also agrred to pay $76m to French news publishers to end seperate copyright dispute

Photo: EPA A Google logo is displayed at the Google offices in Berlin, Germany

Google Ireland and Google France have agreed to pay a €1.1m ($1.34m) fine after a probe found that Google’s hotel rankings could be misleading for consumers, France’s finance ministry and fraud watchdog France's Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) said on Monday.

France's Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) had launched an investigation into Google in September 2019 after complaints from hotels. Businesses had in particularly argued that the display of around 7,500 hotels on Google's search engine was unfair, compared to the official classification issued by Atout France, the country's Tourism Development Agency.

The watchdog found that Google had in fact replaced the Atout France ranking with their own criteria, but had used an identical system of 1 to 5 "stars", which was "highly confusing" for customers.

"This practice was particularly damaging for consumers, who were misled about the level of service they could expect when booking accommodation," the authority stated.

"It was also detrimental to hoteliers whose establishments were wrongly presented as being lower than in the official Atout France classification."

The ministry and watchdog, however, said in a statement that Google has amended its hotel rankings practices since September 2019.

"We have now settled with the DGCCRF and made the necessary changes to only reflect the official French star rating for hotels on Google Maps and Search," a company spokesperson told Euronews.

Meanwhile, Google is also reportedly to pay around $76m to French news publishers under the terms of a deal struck last month to end a copyright dispute. Reuters reported that under a framework agreement reached between Google and the L’Alliance de la presse d’information generale (APIG), a news publisher lobbying group, the tech giant agreed to pay $22m annually to a group of 121 national and local French news publications.

As disclosed in late January, the agreement requires each of the news publishers to sign an individual licensing deal with Google.

Google also reportedly agreed in a separate settlement  to pay the news publishers $10m in exchange for a commitment to end present and future litigation related to copyright claims during the term of the three-year deal.

The annual payments under the deal range from $1.3m for national newspaper Le Monde down to $13,741 for local publisher La Voix de la Haute Marne, according to the documents.

National newspapers Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération reportedly negotiated an additional sum of about €3m each per year through provisions such as a November 2020 agreement to sell subscriptions through Google.

Under the deal APIG members agree to provide content through Google’s upcoming product Google News Showcase, a global service designed to pay publishers for their content online.

A lobbying group representing independent French online news publishers, Spiil, called the agreement “opaque” and noted that the means by which the payments to each news publisher was calculated was not made public.

Spiil also said news publishers had failed to present a united front in the talks, putting them at a disadvantage.

The deal follows the EU’s adoption of the Copyright Reform Act in 2019, later implemented into French law, which requires online platforms such as Google to take responsibility for copyrighted content appearing on their services.

The “neighbouring rights” provision of the law requires tech platforms to open talks with news publishers over remuneration for their content, even if it only appears in the form of a snippet.

In September 2019 Google halted the ability of French users to view news snippets in search results due to the law.

In April 2020 France’s competition authority ordered Google to pay French publishers and news agencies for re-using their content, and in October a French appeals court told the company to begin talks within three months.

Australia is also preparing to introduce legislation this week that would oblige online platforms to pay publishers for their content. Facebook and Google have both criticised the proposed Australian law, with Google saying it could withdraw its search engine from the country in response.

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