Fork it! Google fined €4.34bn over Android, has 90 days to behave

Vows to appeal as Euro competition commissioner says: Stop it now


Analysis What convinced the European Commission that it had a Microsoft-scale competition problem on its hands with Google isn't a mystery. Google engaged in a carbon copy of '90s Microsoft-style tactics.

Google leveraged its platform dominance in Android to promote its own services and apps, at the expense of third-party services, the commission said today. It was Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player all over again.

Today, Europe's competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, fined Google €4.34bn (£3.87bn) for using Android to strengthen its search monopoly. It has 90 days to mend its way or face further penalties of up to 5 per cent of the average daily worldwide turnover of parent firm Alphabet.

The commission objected to three practices in particular: the requirement to preinstall Google Search and Chrome, payments to phone makers to make Google Search the default, and restrictions on creating "forks" of Android.

"Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine," said Vestager. "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."

"Android is locked down in a Google-controlled ecosystem," said Vestager. She said manufacturers were interested in licensing Amazon's FireOS Android. But by making even one FireOS phone, the OEM would have lost the ability to include Google Play Store on its other devices.

"Google cannot have its cake and eat it," she told media today. Google has been breaching European competition law since 2011, she said. It dominates licensable mobile operating systems ("over 95 per cent"), app stores ("over 90 per cent") and mobile search ("over 90 per cent in most European countries").

"The fine reflects the seriousness and the nature of the violation of Europe's antitrust rules," she said.

"At a minimum it requires Google to stop and not re-engage in the three types of restrictions I have described."

Understanding the History of the Android Smackdown

The Register gave readers an insight into the Android investigation over a succession of exclusive stories.

Four years ago we reported that the competition commission was homing in on Google's MADA (Mobile Application Distribution Agreement) contracts. These specify what a phone maker is and isn't allowed to bundle with the phone, right down to the placement of icons on the home screen. The carrot is access to Google Play Services, nominally administered through third party compatibility tests. The stick is non-compatibility. As one Google executive admitted in an email: "We are using compatibility as a club to make them [OEMs] do things we want."

Although the Android AOSP base is open source, Google moved more and more key functionality into the ever-growing GMS (Google Mobile Services) stack: into proprietary middleware.

"Android GMS is a big binary blob that you must integrate. Google has ratcheted it up over the past year. When you sign a MADA, you know it will change," a senior executive at one phone maker told us. Google added 5,000 new calls to Android L alone. A phone without access to GMS struggles even to get an accurate location fix.

But the commission's enquiries were met with an unusual silence. Two months later the commission had to get tough. Phone makers weren't talking, and it had to remind them it had the power to fine them if it suspected they were withholding information.

European Commission request

Talk, or else ... the commission to OEMs in 2014

The new competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, wasn't impressed by the cosy chats her predecessor had been having with Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, and the glacial progress over the Android investigation. In 2016 she threw out the Almunia deal and slapped a $2.9bn fine on Google for abusing its search dominance to squeeze out verticals.

In April that year she sent out a formal Statement of Objections. It identified three areas of abuse.

How might Google mend its ways? Vestager could help.

"These three restrictions are contractual. So the first thing is to take away the contractual restrictions, and see if that is ... effective. It is Google's responsibility to figure that out."

She hinted that giving end users a choice in the OBE [out-of-the-box experience] and allowing operators to provide choices might also be effective. She didn't name it, but Microsoft offered users a choice of browser (a "browser ballot") in response to a complaint by Opera. That took two years to implement.

Trade groups reacted positively to the news.

"Fines make headlines. Effective remedies make a difference," said Shivaun Raff, CEO of Foundem, which made the first competition complaint against Google in Europe a decade ago.

Vestager said one investigation that had Google attempting to comply with a competition remedy – the one in which Google has promised to give vertical search companies a fair shake of the stick – is still "an open question".

"Technology serves us – not the other way around," Vestager concluded.

A Google spokesperson told The Register: "Android has created more choice for everyone, not less. A vibrant ecosystem, rapid innovation and lower prices are classic hallmarks of robust competition. We will appeal the Commission's decision."

Bring on the forks? Vestager seemed to hope so.

"Others can now show their work their merits." ®

Bootnote

Google today is much bigger than Microsoft was when the US found the company was breaching antitrust law. Google yields Alphabet $95bn in revenue from ads; Microsoft raked in $22bn in 2000 – $32bn in today's money – when the first judgements were handed down. (You can read El Reg's extensive coverage which started with this story in August 1998 and ran for some time.) There are billions more devices. And Google technology is far more pervasive than Microsoft's ever was.

How did the commission calculate the €4.34bn fine? Vestager explained that it was based on the duration and the seriousness of infringement, and then the turnover of the company. "We turn the handle and – boof! – out comes a number."


Other stories you might like

  • It's 2022 and there are still malware-laden PDFs in emails exploiting bugs from 2017
    Crafty file names, encrypted malicious code, Office flaws – ah, it's like the Before Times

    HP's cybersecurity folks have uncovered an email campaign that ticks all the boxes: messages with a PDF attached that embeds a Word document that upon opening infects the victim's Windows PC with malware by exploiting a four-year-old code-execution vulnerability in Microsoft Office.

    Booby-trapping a PDF with a malicious Word document goes against the norm of the past 10 years, according to the HP Wolf Security researchers. For a decade, miscreants have preferred Office file formats, such as Word and Excel, to deliver malicious code rather than PDFs, as users are more used to getting and opening .docx and .xlsx files. About 45 percent of malware stopped by HP's threat intelligence team in the first quarter of the year leveraged Office formats.

    "The reasons are clear: users are familiar with these file types, the applications used to open them are ubiquitous, and they are suited to social engineering lures," Patrick Schläpfer, malware analyst at HP, explained in a write-up, adding that in this latest campaign, "the malware arrived in a PDF document – a format attackers less commonly use to infect PCs."

    Continue reading
  • New audio server Pipewire coming to next version of Ubuntu
    What does that mean? Better latency and a replacement for PulseAudio

    The next release of Ubuntu, version 22.10 and codenamed Kinetic Kudu, will switch audio servers to the relatively new PipeWire.

    Don't panic. As J M Barrie said: "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again." Fedora switched to PipeWire in version 34, over a year ago now. Users who aren't pro-level creators or editors of sound and music on Ubuntu may not notice the planned change.

    Currently, most editions of Ubuntu use the PulseAudio server, which it adopted in version 8.04 Hardy Heron, the company's second LTS release. (The Ubuntu Studio edition uses JACK instead.) Fedora 8 also switched to PulseAudio. Before PulseAudio became the standard, many distros used ESD, the Enlightened Sound Daemon, which came out of the Enlightenment project, best known for its desktop.

    Continue reading
  • VMware claims 'bare-metal' performance from virtualized Nvidia GPUs
    Is... is that why Broadcom wants to buy it?

    The future of high-performance computing will be virtualized, VMware's Uday Kurkure has told The Register.

    Kurkure, the lead engineer for VMware's performance engineering team, has spent the past five years working on ways to virtualize machine-learning workloads running on accelerators. Earlier this month his team reported "near or better than bare-metal performance" for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) and Mask R-CNN — two popular machine-learning workloads — running on virtualized GPUs (vGPU) connected using Nvidia's NVLink interconnect.

    NVLink enables compute and memory resources to be shared across up to four GPUs over a high-bandwidth mesh fabric operating at 6.25GB/s per lane compared to PCIe 4.0's 2.5GB/s. The interconnect enabled Kurkure's team to pool 160GB of GPU memory from the Dell PowerEdge system's four 40GB Nvidia A100 SXM GPUs.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022