Four competing search engines from Google have called on EU lawmakers to fight the tech giant’s continued dominance in the market by setting rules for search engine preference menus, arguing that the giant’s ability Technology to set damaging defaults continues to limit the ease with which consumers can change. to non-Google alternatives.
In an open letter today, untracked search engines DuckDuckGo and Qwant, as well as tech-focused Lilo for Good and tree-planting non-profit Ecosia, urge lawmakers in the region to go further. to tackle the market power of the platform giants. .
“The DMA [Digital Markets Act] must be urgently adapted to prevent gatekeepers from suppressing search engine competition, ”they write. “Specifically, the DMA should enshrine in law the requirement for a search engine preferences menu that would effectively prohibit Google from acquiring search access points by default from operating systems and browsers. keepers. In addition, the DMA should ensure that in addition to selecting their preferred default search during the initial onboarding, consumers can change with one click at any time via prompts from search engine applications or competing websites. These actions would ultimately have important implications for competition in the search engine market and ensure real choice for online consumers.
The Commission introduced the Digital Markets Act late last year – proposing a fixed set of ex ante rules for the so-called ‘gatekeepers’ of the internet with the aim of ensuring that these middleman giants The Internet cannot abuse its power to crush competitors and crush consumers. .
However, the four Google search rivals say the proposed legislation currently contains no measures that will help break the tech giant’s continued dominance over search in Europe (where it has around 93%) – hence their call. To EU lawmakers must make changes to add binding rules for search preference screens so that consumers always have the ability to effortlessly change their choice of default search engine, whether on mobile or on the Internet. desktop computer.
While the Commission was responsible for the original DMA project, the other central EU institutions – the European Parliament and Member States, via the Council of the EU – must agree on the details so that the negotiations on the exact form of the settlement continue.
“We welcome the Commission’s goals with the Digital Markets Act (DMA) but te DMA fails to overcome the most important obstacle in search: the hoarding of default positions by Google, ”also write the four search rivals. “Google wouldn’t have become the gatekeeper to the market it is today without years of locking in these defaults. If DMA fails to fix this fundamental problem, we believe the status quo will continue, leaving the root cause of this problem unaffected. “
Google has been contacted for comment on the allegations.
In 2018, the EU’s competition commission fined Google $ 5 billion for antitrust abuse in the way it operates its Android smartphone platform.
As a result of this intervention, the tech giant introduced a regional search preference screen that was displayed when setting up a new Android smartphone in Europe. However, Google quickly implemented a sealed auction model that required rivals to pay for it (and outbid) to appear in one of the available slots, which competitors immediately decried as unfair and non-transparent. .
Some three years later, following another Commission intervention – and after absolutely no decline in Google’s search market share in Europe – the tech giant finally announced it would abandon the model. auction, replacing it with a choice screen that displays eligible search rivals without charging a fee.
But, again, rivals were quick to point out the lingering limitations of Google’s “cure” – such as the fact that it only applies to mobile devices, not to users of Google Chrome’s browser on desktop devices. ; and the fact that Android users only see the screen of choice during setup or during a factory reset so that most of the time they’re using a device, they don’t see it.
DuckDuckGo, for example, has been a strong advocate for a “really fair” search choice that only requires one click for consumers to switch – not the 15+ clicks it takes to switch search engines through. default on an Android device currently at any other point after initial setup (or a factory reset).
Using such dark models to lock in self-preference defaults is something that should be outlawed by EU law, search rivals argue.
“The limitations imposed by Google make it difficult for consumers to adopt other search engines, despite the Commission’s antitrust ruling,” they argue. “As MEP Yon-Courtin proposed in his draft report for the Committee on Economic Affairs, we believe that a well-designed preference menu should be mandated more broadly.”
We have reached out to the Commission for feedback on the call for dedicated search preference screen rules to be incorporated into the DMA and will update this report with any response.
Where’s the cure?
The European Commission has – for years – been reluctant to impose specific remedies on Google, despite a string of antitrust applications. Instead, EU lawmakers have generally said that it is up to Google to determine exactly how to comply with its various orders to end infringements in areas such as product research, brokerage, etc. search ads and Android.
The result of such a hands-off approach from the EU executive is that Google has been able to find ways to maintain its dominance in key strategic markets like search – despite a series of high profile antitrust applications in Europe.
It’s an uncomfortable record for EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager, who has carved out a reputation for herself as an “iron lady” ready to take on Big Tech – but whose applications in the digital sphere have failed. not really upset the platform giants. market share. (Did not stop Google from continuing to consolidate.)
However, some EU member states are starting to take a much more practical approach to cracking down on big tech market abuse, which appears to be having an impact.
The French competition authority, for example, recently extracted a series of interoperability requirements from Google in a case related to the self-preference of its adtech.
While the German Federal Cartel Office began this year, armed with enhanced powers, to impose ex ante corrective measures on digital giants deemed to have substantial market power. It’s now in the process of assessing whether Google – and a number of other tech giants – are meeting that bar. If he finds that they are doing so, he seems eager to get down to work on setting up preventative rules on how they can operate in Germany.
Outside the EU, the UK is also reforming national competition rules to cut the wings of Big Tech. He is in the process of developing an ex ante regime for digital giants with what he describes as a ‘strategic market status’ – which, unlike the Commission’s approach with the DMA, will not be unique.
Instead, the UK has said it wants to tailor the rules to the specific company – which would give its regulators more leeway to, for example, impose a search preference menu remedy on a company. like Google if they decide that such a step is necessary.
The Commission’s single, centralized set of rules for large technologies therefore appears to be a weak tool in the face of extremely well-endowed ‘innovators’ who have years of experience in building and iteration of services designed for. eliminate friction and knock down obstacles on a larger scale.
The EU executive risks being caught off guard on the issue of technological antitrust at a time when lawmakers around the world are enthusiastic and active on the issue – from China to the United States.
It’s also interesting how, following a very bad week for (another tech giant 🙂 Facebook, including Congressional testimony by the latest tech whistleblower Francis Haugen, the commissioners of the EU rushed to tweet about their “urgency” to tackle Big Tech …
Antitrust chief Vestager also tweeted in the wake of the global Facebook outage – which was also an Instagram and WhatsApp outage, since the three social services run on the same infrastructure, all owned by Facebook – with the EU executive vice president saying the episode demonstrated the need for “alternatives and choices in the tech market”.
Given this anti-consolidation message, EU citizens could be forgiven for asking why Vestager’s department hasn’t blocked a single tech acquisition – including Google’s recent gobbling up of the health tech company Fitbit?
How exactly does Vestager propose to support startups and alternatives to gain the necessary scale to challenge the platform giants?
Unfortunately, his tweet did not contain a solution, so the search for a cure continues.
It also remains to be seen where the Commission’s next antitrust investigation into Google will go.
This summer, the bloc’s executive confirmed it was studying the tech giant’s adtech – lagging antitrust interventions have already been taken elsewhere in the region, including the UK and France.
As for Google, the tech giant has been working to fight the Commission’s existing antitrust measures.
Last week, his lawyers appeared in court for their appeal against Android’s $ 5 billion antitrust fine from the commission – claiming the sanction was based on flawed calculations, was not “appropriate” and that it had no anti-competitive intent.