In July 2018, Google was fined €4.34 billion for limiting search on Android phones. Almost two years later, its rivals claim little has changed and the company is as dominant as ever.
The screen is simple. Under a search icon and a short blurb are four options. One is always Google; the others vary depending on which country you’re in. Pick one of Google’s rivals, and its results – not Google’s – will appear in a home screen search widget and in the Chrome web browser. Its app will also be downloaded to the device.
The change is so subtle that many people may not notice it. But across the continent, it marks a fundamental shift. The choice screen appears in the wake of the European Commission fining Google €4.34 billion (£3.81bn) for breaching EU antitrust rules. On July 18, 2018, competition commissioner Margarethe Vestager hit Google with the fine – the largest of three she has issued against the company – for abusing the dominance of its Android operating system.
Being big isn’t illegal, but the European Commission says dominant companies have a “special responsibility” not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition. At the end of an investigation spanning more than three years, the Commission concluded that Google had acted illegally in using Android to ensure that traffic went to Google Search instead of its competitors. The Commission accused Google of three unfair tactics. Google, it said, had required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search and Chrome apps if they wanted to license the Google Play app store; had paid mobile network operators and phone manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google Search, and had prevented manufacturers from creating alternative versions of Android without its approval if they wanted to pre-install any Google apps.
Google’s actions, the Commission said, helped it to cement its dominance in the mobile search industry. In Europe, more than 95 percent of all searches on mobile are made through Google. The market is mostly Android devices, but Google also pays billions to Apple to be the default search engine in the Safari browser on iOS. According to Vestager, its Android practices “denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits.” Google is appealing the decision.
The way many European antitrust fines work puts the onus of fixing a problem on the guilty party. Google has re-written the contracts it holds with phone makers and relaxed limits on how Android can be developed by others. On new phones and tablets shipped into the European Economic Area, it has introduced the search engine choice screen.
The choice screen gives Google’s rivals an unprecedented presence on Android devices. Smaller players have never had such an opportunity to directly reach users on the world’s biggest mobile operating system.