Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Brussels — Google’s response to an EU order to give rival search apps a foothold on its Android phones may fail to steer users to alternatives, warned US upstart DuckDuckGo, the only competitor to win the right to appear as another search option on new handsets across Europe.

Google has to prompt users to pick alternative search and web browser apps under the terms of a 2018 EU antitrust ruling that found the company unfairly ties moneymaking services to the Android software it gives away.

It chose to set up an auction format for smaller rivals in which they will pay to appear as a one of three non-Google options on the choice screen across Europe from March to June.

But the user experience of the screens “is designed in a way that is subconsciously influencing people to use Google more than they otherwise should or would like to”, said Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, a US search engine that says it doesn’t track users.

“Ultimately it will not be effective if it remains like that, if only because the auction format will push out a private option and that is the number one thing besides Google that people want to select,” he said.

Non-Google options

The auction will be rerun every three months. DuckDuckGo and Google are the only search apps that will appear on the choice screens in 31 countries in the region.

Users trying to set up their phones will be shown a choice of four search engines, without much explanation of the apps or the possibility to change their choice later, DuckDuckGo said in a separate blog post on Tuesday.

By passing up other ways of designing the prompts that could draw users to non-Google options, DuckDuckGo said Google is potentially undermining the EU order’s aim to widen alternatives to its apps.

Google declined to comment, referring to a detailed January blog post in which it said the “choice screen design was developed in consultation with the European Commission”.

The commission’s media office said regulators “will continue monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism”, which comes after discussions with Google and feedback from other companies “in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.

Choice screen

“As regards DuckDuckGo, as a result of the choice screen mechanism, they will be on every new Android device in the European Economic Area, and it will be for consumers to choose which search engine to install and use,” the EU said. The EU’s Android decision also allows rival search engines to be exclusively preinstalled on phones and tablets which “was not possible before”.

Google said it is possible to preinstall other search providers before the EU ruling. The company is separately challenging the EU decision on Android at the bloc’s second-highest court. The same court will hold a three-day hearing in February on Google’s appeal to an earlier antitrust decision on its search service.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition commissioner, said on Monday that she is “very, very closely” following Google’s efforts to comply with the order. She said she is aware of the detail of the design, adding that officials are “doubting if people would use unlimited scroll” to show a large number of alternatives.

Prices rivals must pay Google to appear on the screen “came down quite dramatically in the latest auction”, she said.

The EU has never formally signed off on how Google opted to comply with the order, leaving it uncertain whether the company has done enough to avoid more fines. Regulators could seek further changes to the choice screen from Google if necessary.

Google’s Chrome browser partly owes its own initial surge in popularity to choice screens that Microsoft agreed to show under EU pressure to offer people an alternative to the browser it loaded on to new personal computers with its Windows software.

Microsoft’s screen “wasn’t limited in choice and had 12 different browsers” and “most or all of the elements that we are suggesting here”, Weinberg said.


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