Google Search rivals urge EU to revisit Android antitrust case

A group of search engines from around the world are banding together to demand European Union regulators address Google’s dominance in the online search market. They are also urging the EU to take a closer look at Google’s controversial auction process.

The news comes hot on the heels of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) antitrust case, which formally launched last week. The suit alleges that Google violates anti-competition laws by crowding out rivals in the internet search and advertising markets.

DuckDuckGo (U.S.), Ecosia (Germany), Lilo and Qwant (France), and Seznam (Czech Republic) have penned an open letter to European Commission executive vice president Margrethe Vestager asking her to take a “renewed look” at how Google’s dominance in the search market is policed. As an initial step, the companies are calling for a trilateral meeting between themselves, the European Commission (EC), and Google to look at the issue of search engine competition in Europe and elsewhere. More specifically, Google’s smaller rivals want to establish a more “effective preference menu,” giving Android users an easier way to choose a default search engine when setting up their device for the first time.

The letter reads:

Dear Executive Vice President Vestager,

We are companies operating search engines that compete against Google. As you know, we are deeply dissatisfied with the so-called remedy created by Google to address the adverse effects of its anticompetitive conduct in the Android case. We understand that Google regularly updates you regarding its pay-to-play auction, but it appears that you may not be receiving complete or accurate information.

We are writing to request a trilateral meeting with your office, ourselves, and Google, with the goal of establishing an effective preference menu. Our respective designees could work in advance to create a tight agenda for this meeting to ensure it is productive and collaborative.

We are heartfelt supporters of the Commission’s ambition to remediate entrenched Google competition harms. We are asking to put these intentions into practice now, making full use of your existing tools.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,
Ecosia – Germany; DuckDuckGo – United States; Lilo – France; Qwant – France; Seznam – Czech Republic.

The story so far

This latest development in Google’s spiraling antitrust woes can be traced back to 2018, when EU antitrust regulators hit Google with a record $5 billion fine (which is currently under appeal) over the way it bundled its services on Android, giving handset manufacturers little choice in terms of which Google apps and services they preinstalled.

In response to the fine, though, Google overhauled its Android licensing model in Europe, electing to separate Google Search and Chrome from its other suite of apps and to offer different licenses for each “bundle” — which it would charge for. As part of the measures, Google introduced an auction process that would give alternative search engines a better chance to become the default provider on mobile devices sold in Europe through serving up a “choice screen” during a device’s initial setup process. The winning bidders would agree to pay Google every time a user chose them as the default search engine, after which the whole process would start all over again each quarter.

The various search engines have long-criticized the “pay-to-play” process, with some of them opting not to participate on the grounds that it is “unethical and anti-competitive.” DuckDuckGo has argued that search engines who “squeeze money out of every last drop of people’s personal information” are better positioned to outbid privacy-focused or ethical search engines that don’t put profits first.

“An auction system pushes participants to bid up to their profitability per user — effectively transferring their margins to Google,” a DuckDuckGo spokesperson told VentureBeat.

Ecosia, the so-called “ethical search engine” which uses its profits to plant trees, agrees that the auction system is more likely to favor search engines that are more friendly to Google’s bottom line.

“The incursion of financial cost, in return for the right for representation, cannot be fairly applied in the search engine market — it is only ever going to price-out genuine alternatives in favor of Google ‘mini-me’s’ and affiliates,” Ecosia CMO Hannah Wickes told VentureBeat.

In design

Just last week, DuckDuckGo inked a separate open letter directed at Google, asking why it takes so many steps to set alternative search engines as default on Android. This builds on a number of recent blog posts dedicated to search preference menu design and the broader auction process, with DuckDuckGo going so far as to design its own hypothetical search engine choice screen.

Above: DuckDuckGo created its own “template” for what a default search engine menu could look like on Android

Rather than imposing an artificial limit of just four options, as is the case with Google’s current auction process, DuckDuckGo suggested a scrollable screen with more options and an introductory spiel explaining in simpler language how it all works.

“If the objective is to incentivize greater consumer choice in the search engine market, a properly designed and structured preference menu is a great way to go about it — but this should be done on the basis of criteria that are relevant for consumers, such as market share,” the spokesperson added.

Ecosia broadly agrees with this assertion, and it too previously created its own mockup of what an effective choice screen should look like.

Above: Ecosia’s suggested search engine preference menu

Another core complaint is that the search engine choice screen should be more visible to more people. As things stand, the only time it shows up is when someone is setting up their Android device for the first time, or if they have factory reset their phone. Ecosia want all users to see the choice screen through proactive alerts.

“Going forward, it is essential that the replacement finds a way to reach all users, not just those who’ve purchased new devices,” Wickes said. “We will be pushing for the auction-screen’s replacement to be shown on existing devices as well, either through push notifications, or when new Android software is installed.”

For the five search engines, they hope that their collective voice will garner attention among the powers-that-be in Europe so that they can look at how Google has responded to previous complaints. For Google, its antitrust woes could be about to get much worse.

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