Google has won a legal bid to keep its “crown jewel” search ranking algorithms secret in a long-running £1bn competition lawsuit against rival shopping search engine Kelkoo.
Kelkoo unsuccessfully argued in the High Court of England and Wales that it wanted to expand the number of people entitled to read confidential documents in a case between itself and the Mountain View, US-headquartered adtech biz.
Squashing the attempt, His Honour Judge Alan Johns QC said in a judgment yesterday: "I will accordingly make a confidentiality order in terms reflecting the agreed provisions and incorporating Google’s suggestion as to redactions but without adopting Kelkoo’s proposed modifications or detailed directions dealing with redactions."
Kelkoo, an online shopping price comparison search engine, had asked the judge to allow more people inside a so-called confidentiality ring. At the heart of Kelkoo's £1bn+ suit against Google is the allegation that Google tried to throttle Kelkoo when it launched its own competing product, Google Shopping, in the 2010s.
"Kelkoo alleges that Google has been operating its well-known search engine of that name in ways which favour Google's own shopping comparison service while reducing the visibility of Kelkoo's service, and has been concluding advertising contracts on terms which disadvantage Kelkoo," summarised Judge Johns.
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During a competition lawsuit where commercially confidential information is called into evidence, British courts do what they can to make sure trade secrets don't get out. Only some people – usually lawyers and expert witnesses – are allowed to view those secrets from inside a confidentiality ring.
In the Kelkoo/Google case, two confidentiality rings were made: an inner ring and an outer ring. The inner ring only included lawyers, but the outer one "includes several members of Kelkoo's senior personnel," as the judge noted.
Kelkoo put forward a way of redacting documents from Google so the same document could be redacted differently for both rings. On top of that, it also wanted the court to force Google to justify each of its redactions.
The judge sided with Google, ruling: "I am particularly reluctant to make an order incorporating these modifications when the very early stage of proceedings means I can have very little feel for what documents are likely to be affected by the confidentiality order."
It had earlier in the case given evidence that the "details of (and in certain cases the names of) Google's general search algorithms still in use today but first implemented more than five (and indeed, in certain cases, ten) years ago, remain of significant commercial sensitivity to Google, and disclosure of that material other than subject to the protection of the External Adviser Only Confidentiality Ring would cause serious harm to Google's legitimate business interests."
The case had been on hold for some years pending EU Commission prognostications.
This week's ruling has some parallels with another long-running case against Google in the High Court, one brought by price comparison site Foundem.
Last year Google was less lucky: a judge made the adtech company pick between showing its "crown jewels" – the algorithms that rank its search results – to an SEO expert (acting for Foundem) or giving up parts of its defence to Foundem's case.
Yet another Google probe just got a green light
Earlier today the EU opened yet another formal competition law investigation into Google's alleged favouring of its own advertising technology products. ®