Europe’s antitrust chief has confirmed the Commission is stepping up an ongoing investigation into Google’s Android mobile OS, issuing a formal Statement of Objections today.
Setting out what it described as its “preliminary view”, the Commission said it believes Google has “implemented a strategy on mobile devices to preserve and strengthen its dominance in general internet search”.
The move comes a year after the EC announced an in-depth probe into Android rivals’ concerns that Google is using its mobile plaform as a ‘trojan horse’ to push adoption of its other apps and services, such as Google search.
Specific allegations listed in the Statement of Objections are that Google has breached EU competition law by:
- requiring manufacturers to pre-install Google Search and Google’s Chrome browser and requiring them to set Google Search as default search service on their devices, as a condition to license certain Google proprietary apps;
- preventing manufacturers from selling smart mobile devices running on competing operating systems based on the Android open source code;
- giving financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-install Google Search on their devices.
“That tie between [Google’s] Play [app] Store and other [Google] apps is what we see as a very problematic behaviour,” said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, speaking during a press conference announcing the formal charges.
“There should be an incentive to innovate and one of the strongest incentives to innovate is you can present your product to consumers. And that is what is at stake here — it has become too difficult for other products, other app stores to present their apps to the consumer,” she added.
Vestager said her department had found evidence that some manufacturers had decided not to use an alternative version of Android — developed by what she couched as “a credible competitor” — due to “Google’s behavior”.
“We have concerns that this hampers the development of rival versions of Android which could develop into credible platforms for competing apps and services,” she added.
She also highlighted as problematic the fact the company provides financial incentives to manufacturers and mobile carriers — “on condition that Google search is pre-installed as the exclusive search provider on their devices”.
“We have found evidence, as a result, that device manufacturers and mobile network operators have refrained from pre-installing alternative search services,” she added.
Google now has 12 weeks to respond to the Commission’s Statement of Objections.
Vestager stressed this is an interim step in the process of investigating whether the Commission considers Android to be in violation of regional antitrust rules.
“I will obviously carefully consider Google’s argument before determining how to proceed,” she said.
We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update this post with their response.
Update: In an emailed statement, Kent Walker, SVP and general counsel at Google, said: “Android has helped foster a remarkable — and, importantly, sustainable — ecosystem, based on open-source software and open innovation. We look forward to working with the European Commission to demonstrate that Android is good for competition and good for consumers.”
Following its usual policy response playbook, Google has also published a blog outlining its arguments — in which it asserts that its partner agreements are “entirely voluntary”, and adds that “anyone can use Android without Google”, name-checking Amazon as an example of a “major” company that has forked the platform.
“Any manufacturer can… choose to load the suite of Google apps to their device and freely add other apps as well. For example, phones today come loaded with scores of pre-installed apps (from Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Google, mobile carriers, and more),” Google goes on to note.
“Of course while Android is free for manufacturers to use, it’s costly to develop, improve, keep secure, and defend against patent suits. We provide Android for free, and offset our costs through the revenue we generate on our Google apps and services we distribute via Android.”
The leading coalition of Android antitrust complainants, gathered under the umbrella moniker FairSearch, has also issued a response describing the EC’s formal charges today as “a crucial step to end abusive business practices surrounding the Android mobile platform”.
“Google launched Android as an open source project, allowing anyone to change it and write a new version. Today, Google actively hinders the possibility of developing versions that might lead to new operating systems able to vigorously compete against Android.
“Google effectively imposes exclusivity on both smart phone makers and wireless providers with revenue sharing arrangements that require them to promote Google’s own applications to the detriment of competitors,” FairSearch, whose member companies include Expedia, Nokia, Oracle and TripAdvisor, added in its statement.
Microsoft, the maker of the Bing search engine, was also previously providing financial backing to FairSearch, although it terminated its membership earlier this year.
Another EC antitrust investigation pertaining to Google — the long-running probe into the Google Search price comparison service — is still ongoing, with Vestager noting that her department had received and was currently analyzing Google’s response to the Statement of Objections it issued last year.
“Google has given us a detailed response to the allegations in that Statement of Objection, and we are currently in the process of analyzing the very large amount of data that we received,” she said. “We’re working on this as a matter of priority but we can of course not sacrifice quality over speed.”
She added that her department is continuing to look at Google’s behavior in other areas where it has received prior complaints — namely in specialized search; the copying of third party content; and advertising.