In Depth

Why Google’s rivals refuse to pay for a slice of the Android search market

Following a record £4.3bn EU antitrust fine, the search giant’s hunt for competition gets off to a rocky start

Google is facing a backlash from rival search engine firms following an attempt to stir up competition in the wake of a £3.9bn antitrust fine. 

According to The Daily Telegraph, Google has been offering rival firms, including DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!, the opportunity to “pay to promote themselves” as an alternative to the company’s search engine.  

Competitors were invited to “bid against each other” for a spot on a screen that would let Google’s Android users choose which search engine provider they would like to use by default when starting up their phone for the first time, the newspaper says. 

But the plan appears to have “backfired”, the paper adds, as rivals are refusing to pay.

Why is Google opening itself to competition?

Last July, Google was fined a record €4.3bn (£3.9bn) by the European Union for breaking antitrust laws, The Verge reports. 

The company was found to have been “bundling” its Chrome web browser, complete with Google’s search engine, into devices that were powered by the firm’s Android mobile operating system, the website notes. 

Unlike Apple’s iOS software, which is reserved for iPhones, iPads and iPods, Google licenses its Android system to third-party device makers. Samsung, for instance, uses Android to power its range of phones and tablets. 

But the record-breaking penalty was issued when the European Commission discovered that Google was pre-installing its apps on third-party devices running Android, The Guardian explains. Companies that refused the apps would be banned from using the search giant’s Google Play app marketplace and streaming services. 

As reported by the paper, the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said Google was using its Android operating system “to cement its dominance as a search engine”, before clarifying that the practice “is illegal under EU antitrust rules.”

Therefore, Google is evaluating methods that give its competitors a piece of the search market. 

What method has been proposed?

Earlier this month, Google said in a blogpost that it would be “implementing a choice screen” on Android devices distributed in the European Economic Area from “early 2020”.

Judging by a preview image posted by the company, the choice screen would feature a selection of four search providers. These include Qwant, a French-based privacy-focused search engine, and Ecosia, which diverts 80% of its income to planting trees, plus Google and Yahoo!.

Whichever option was selected would become the default search engine on the homepage of the phone and in the Chrome browser app, says Google, adding that providers could “bid” for a spot on the list in an auction. 

Reuters claims that only four providers would appear on the list, including Google. The pool will be different depending on country and Google will fill in the remaining slots if, say, only two rival firms were to place a bid.

So what’s been the response?

Speaking to The Telegraph, Qwant co-founder Eric Leandri said that the company was evaluating whether Google’s plan was legal. 

He argued that the scheme is not “an appropriate remedy to Google’s abuse of its dominant position on the Android mobile platform.”

Gabriel Weinberg, head of DuckDuckGo, told the paper that the “ballot box” solution may be a step in the right direction, but Google’s design “will not meaningfully deliver consumer choice.”

Google itself said an auction was a “fair and objective” way of decising which search providers were included. “It allows search providers to decide what value they place on appearing in the choice screen and to bid accordingly,” the company said.

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