Interview Four search providers – DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant, and Lilo – have penned an open letter to the European Commission claiming that Google is suppressing search engine competition.
The EU has made a number of efforts to counter Google's search monopoly, including a July 2018 fine and ruling that the company engaged in "illegal tying of Google's search and browser apps" and "illegal payments conditional on exclusive pre-installation of Google Search."
Google responded with some licensing changes. In August 2019, it agreed with the EU to provide an Android Choice screen, which included selling spots on the new menu via auction – leading to participants like privacy-centric DuckDuckGo complaining that they were priced out.
The Android Choice screen has since been revised by further agreement with the European Commission, and now features more options and free participation. The new choice screen includes up to 12 search services, with the five most popular search engines in the local country listed first, as recorded by StatCounter, and is free for search providers.
Third-party search providers are not happy. Today's open letter [PDF] states that "despite recent changes, we do not believe it will move market share significantly." The providers say that the new Android Choice menu is "only shown once, in a Google-designed, Google-owned onboarding process. If [users] later decide to switch defaults, they must labour through 15+ clicks or factory-reset their phone." They also complain that Chrome desktop and other operating systems are not included, and worry that "it doesn't apply to all search aspects points in Android."
The providers ask that Google should be banned from having default search access points in operating systems and browsers, and ask that "consumers are able to one-click switch at any time via prompts from competing search engine apps or websites."
Is that not a recipe for chaos, like the bad old days when users would inadvertently install new toolbars into Internet Explorer and end up with dozens of them and web browsing slowed to a crawl; or the file association wars in Windows when users would find PDF files opening in some strange new applications, because changing defaults was too easy?
"There are very few actual search companies," said Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of German tree-planting search engine Ecosia, speaking to The Register. "It's basically the companies that have signed the letter, plus Bing... I see there could be abuse but if you whitelist a few providers and set clear rules I think the problem can be solved."
Kroll is also concerned that Google exploits the slow pace of the EU's legislative process. Ecosia complained about the original Android Choice process "from the very first day when we saw the auction model, and that was more than two years go.
"In the meantime, at least one search company went bankrupt. A German company called Cliqz invested €100m into building their own search algorithm and they went bankrupt. Google playing on time is a big problem."
Cliqz said in its farewell post last year: "We failed to convince the political stakeholders, that Europe desperately needs an own independent digital infrastructure. Here we can only hope that someone else picks up the ball... the world needs a private search engine that is not just using Bing or Google in the backend."
In Russia, Kroll said: "Yandex went down to a 20 per cent market share. Then they had a real choice screen on a fixed date and it went back to 60 per cent. I'm not saying we should do everything like Russia does, but it shows that it can have an effect."
Kroll's figures do not quite match what Statcounter reports, but there was a substantial bump in Yandex share on mobile when this choice screen, placing Yandex first, was introduced.
Barriers to rivals
According to Kroll, Google puts many barriers in the way of competing search engines. On Chrome, he said, if users want Ecosia as the default search engine, "the only real way is to install an extension. You have to click many times, and if you get there, Google keeps showing warning prompts like 'do you really want to keep this search engine?' and they highlight the No button.
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"The other thing Google is doing is whenever they don't own an ecosystem they just pay whatever money it takes to become the default search provider. Especially Safari. $15bn. They're paying to ensure that no other competitor can enter into the market... we've seen very slow momentum on the regulatory side."
Kroll believes there should be more transparency. "Many users don't understand how this works, that the search preinstall is an advertisement. There is no information that you are generating money for Apple."
Is Ecosia concerned about Microsoft's efforts to push users towards Bing by building search into the Start menu used for application launching, which is even more apparent in the new Windows 11?
"Yes, we're concerned about all those platform things. Google would lose more users than we do, of course," said Kroll.
Without Bing, all the non-Google engines would be screwed
There is nuance around the situation with Bing. Microsoft may be playing its own tricks to promote Bing, but without Bing there would be even less competition for Google in Europe and the USA.
"We use Bing, I think DuckDuckGo also uses Bing, but we add certain layers of information on top of it," said Kroll.
Building a rival ecosystem to make an alternative search engine succeed "would cost billions," he said, and "even that doesn't guarantee that you're successful because you still don't have access to the market. That's why Cliqz went bankrupt."
Ecosia therefore has a revenue-sharing business model with Microsoft for Bing. "I'm not allowed to say how much that is," said the Ecosia CEO.
The existence of Bing, then, is important to all these other search providers? "It's absolutely essential, yes," said Kroll. "There's no independent search engine really, other than Google and Bing."
Given the potential influence of search engines over decisions that matter, such as political questions, or the effectiveness of a COVID vaccine, are they too important to leave with commercial companies? "I absolutely agree," said Kroll. "It's critical infrastructure and should be treated that way. And at the moment, it isn't." ®