from the what's-best-for-innovation? dept
As was widely expected, earlier today, the EU Commission brought down its latest antitrust fine against Google, this time for an eye-popping $5 billion. The number gets the attention, but it’s worth looking at the underlying details here. This was the result of a two year investigation, specifically into certain bundling practices that Google used concerning Android and some of its apps. When Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager first announced the investigation in April of 2016, she more or less explained where they were headed:
The Commission’s preliminary view is that Google has implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general internet search. First, the practices mean that Google Search is pre-installed and set as the default, or exclusive, search service on most Android devices sold in Europe. Second, the practices appear to close off ways for rival search engines to access the market, via competing mobile browsers and operating systems. In addition, they also seem to harm consumers by stifling competition and restricting innovation in the wider mobile space.
And… that’s more or less exactly what the Commission found in today’s announcement.
Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Today, mobile internet makes up more than half of global internet traffic. It has changed the lives of millions of Europeans. Our case is about three types of restrictions that Google has imposed on Android device manufacturers and network operators to ensure that traffic on Android devices goes to the Google search engine. In this way, Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules.”
In particular, Google:
- has required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search app and browser app (Chrome), as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store);
- made payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices; and
- has prevented manufacturers wishing to pre-install Google apps from selling even a single smart mobile device running on alternative versions of Android that were not approved by Google (so-called “Android forks”).
I’ve been critical of some antitrust activity and supportive of others over the years, and I think it’s important to take a step back and look at whether or not this actually will likely lead to greater innovation — no matter what the reasoning is (and, it should be noted, many European officials have made it clear they think EU antitrust activities should be used to harm American companies because they’re big and American, rather than for any principled reason concerning competition or innovation). And, of course, there are some people who simply hate big tech companies and will cheer on any attack on them whether it’s for good or bad reasons.
Just to set some signposts for the discussion: I believe, and have argued strongly over the years, that competition is the key to innovation and innovation is an important component of making everyone’s lives better. You are free to disagree with those claims, but then we’re having a very different discussion. This is the lens through which I view this entire discussion. Based on that, antitrust activities are useful when they are used to stop truly harmful monopolistic practices that hold back competition and innovation. But, antitrust activities for other reasons, or which don’t seem likely to result in greater competition and innovation tend to be wasteful and silly. So… where does this latest fine from the EU come down?
As I noted when the investigation was first announced, it seemed that only one of the three “prongs” of the investigation really seemed like a big issue: the preventing manufacturers from selling phones with alternative versions of Android. There is a non-nefarious reason why Google might want this — because if those non-Google Android versions are poorly done, it could confuse people and reflect poorly on Google… but this condition could clearly be used to stifle competition and innovation in the space. There’s a reasonable argument that this was always a step too far, and Google never should have gone down that path in the first place.
The other reasons given for the fine remain… a lot less compelling. First, there’s the issue of tying Google search and Chrome to offering Google Play as a pre-installed app. First off, the EU admits (oddly) that this is unfair because everyone expects the Google Play store to be pre-installed:
As part of the Commission investigation, device manufacturers confirmed that the Play Store is a “must-have” app, as users expect to find it pre-installed on their devices (not least because they cannot lawfully download it themselves).
Okay, fair enough. But you know what that very same Play Store lets you do? Download other browsers and search apps. I don’t use Chrome on my phone (I use Firefox, Firefox Focus — which is fantastic, or Brave). I’ve even used alternative app stores in the past, but eventually shifted back to the Play Store, mainly because Google seemed to do a much better job of stopping dangerous or crappy apps from getting on my phone. And, as Google has suggested, part of the reason for requiring Chrome to be installed is that tons of other apps actually use Chrome components as part of how they work. So not installing Chrome with the Play Store would actually lead to a lot of apps not working properly.
The other issue for which Google was dinged was the payments to device manufacturers to make Google search the “exclusive” pre-installed search on those devices. Now, I could totally see a valid antitrust complaint on this point if Google were forcing manufacturers into this agreement against their will, and were able to force them to do so. But… here it’s about Google doing a business deal to pay manufacturers to be the exclusive. As we pointed out at the beginning of the investigation, how is that different than when Google paid Mozilla to be the default search engine in Firefox? Then Microsoft outbid Google and Bing became the default.
Either way, on this issue, Google stopped doing this practice entirely in 2014.
Google says it’s going to appeal this decision, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai is hinting that if the ruling is upheld, Google may no longer be able to offer Android for free in the EU. Google also argues that the way its designed its Android business has created a tremendous amount of choice — including providing smart phone / tablet / other devices that are available at price points and in markets where Google’s main competitor in this space, Apple, refuses to make any real offerings. And that’s a fairly compelling point.
The bigger question, again, though is what will be the real impact on innovation for end users of all of this. I’m not convinced (should this hold up) that it will have much of an impact either way. I doubt making any of the required changes will really harm Google that much (as noted, in at least one case, it already gave up the practice four years ago). But I also don’t see how any of the required changes really helps competitors or app developers in any significant way. It doesn’t make any of them more likely to get more users, or provide a better way for them to get their services out there.
One of the issues with anything having to do with innovation is that it’s impossible to envision the “innovation that would have occurred” in the counterfactual scenario in which the supposed antitrust violations never occurred. But looking over these issues, I’m hard pressed to think of how anything would have developed all that differently if Google hadn’t done these things in the first place. Perhaps Amazon’s Fire devices would have a larger market? Perhaps we’d have seen more innovation with other third parties building out their own versions of Android with their own playstores. But it seems unlikely that it would have materially changed how the search market and browser market developed.
Of course, it should be noted that there is some amount of karma here. Back during the Microsoft antitrust fight, Google stepped up in 2006 to complain to the EU Commission about Microsoft’s bundling and default practices. Specifically, Microsoft’s browser at the time included a built in search box that defaulted to Microsoft’s own search (at the time, called MSN search). And Google didn’t like that.
“The market favors open choice for search, and companies should compete for users based on the quality of their search services,” said Marissa Mayer, the vice president for search products at Google. “We don’t think it’s right for Microsoft to just set the default to MSN. We believe users should choose.”
And, amusingly, Microsoft’s own response to that criticism was nearly identical to Google’s today, saying that “the user is in control” and it’s easy to change the defaults. So there’s absolutely some hypocrisy in how Google has acted through this whole thing.
However, in the end, I’m still hard pressed to see how today’s fine will actually change anything in a way that improves innovation and what the public gets to do. Google is competing with lots of companies on a variety of different fronts these days. Earlier this year we had a podcast exploring how companies might disrupt Google, and I don’t see how these moves make any of what we discussed any easier at all. Instead, it seems to be fighting the last fight, over mobile UI, rather than the next real competitive and innovative fights on different kinds of services.