Browser choice screen for Android must offer real alternatives

Without truly independent vendors, there is no real choice. If there are only sham alternatives to choose from, that use Google technology and are financed by Google advertising, Google will benefit again in the end.

Björn GreifEditor

Google will show Android users in Europe a selection of browsers and search engines that they can use on their mobile device, as the company announced in a blog post last week. Google is thus reacting to an antitrust decision taken by the European Union in July 2018, which obliged them to pay a record fine of €4.34 billion ($5 bn).

Google abused its dominant position, among other things, by requiring Android device manufacturers to pre-install the Chrome browser and the Google search app. The Internet giant must abandon this practice of hindering competition in the mobile sector, which was condemned by the EU Commission. In order to comply with EU requirements, Google will probably take a similar approach as Microsoft with their browser choice box for Windows users.

Free browser choice for Android users

“We’ve seen in the past that a choice screen can be an effective way to promote user choice,” says Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition. “In the Google Android case, it has the potential to give users a real choice about what search provider and browser they want on Android devices. We will be watching closely to see how the choice screen mechanism evolves.”

There are dozens of browsers and search apps for Android. Therefore, Google will have to pre-select which alternatives it wants to show users. However, the criteria according to which this preselection will take place are still open.

“In order to guarantee truly fair competition, smaller European providers with innovative, data protection-friendly and Google-independent business models must also be featured prominently on the browser choice screen,” says Marc Al-Hames, Managing Director of Cliqz. “This is the only way for truly independent players to have a real chance in the market. Otherwise, the Google monopoly will merely become a US duopoly with a lot of Google and a little Microsoft.”

Nearly all are dependent on Google or Microsoft

In order to create fair competition, the antitrust authorities must above all examine the business models of “alternative” vendors. Most Android browsers use Google as their default search engine because they are paid for this. The money comes from Google’s billion-dollar war chest, which is always bulging thanks to their highly lucrative search engine advertising business.

Google has virtually monopolized access to customers through unfair practices, dictating prices to advertisers and not even paying taxes on its billions in profits. Google is always in a position to outbid competitors – if necessary – in order to drive them out of the market. And this is exactly what Google has done systematically for years. No one can compete with that – not even Microsoft, although it is pursuing a similar strategy with Bing.

Like most browsers, “alternative” search engines are often either dependent on Google or Microsoft because they use their search index or finance themselves through Google or Bing advertising. Therefore, they are often mere sham alternatives because the data and thus the money end up again with Google or Microsoft.

In addition, most Android browsers use Google’s Chromium as code base (this even applies to Microsoft Edge in the future). This is problematic because Google can determine the direction in which Chromium browsers will evolve, among other things, by setting rules for API usage. By modifying APIs, Google would always be able, for example, to kill off unwanted content-blocking browser extensions such as ad blockers or privacy protection tools in order to protect its advertising and data collection business. This became apparent with the latest draft specification for Chrome extensions (Manifest V3), which was heavily criticized by the developer community.

Real alternatives instead of mere sham alternatives

There are only very few truly independent vendors who do not have any business relationship with Google or Microsoft. The following overview illustrates this:

Most Android browsers are in some ways depending on Google or Microsoft: many use Google’s Chromium code base, Google search as default, Google’s or Microsoft’s search index and are financed by Google or Microsoft Bing ads. The only provider that is truly independent of Google and Microsoft is Cliqz.

If the EU really wants to guarantee Android users a free choice of browsers and search engines, it must ensure that Google not only features sham alternatives on their selection screen, but also truly independent European and privacy-friendly alternatives such as Cliqz or Qwant. The fact that such real alternatives undermine Google’s data collection and business model must not play a role in the pre-selection process.