Europe wants easy default browser selection screens. Mozilla is already sounding the alarm on dirty tricks

Can you blame it?

Europe's Digital Markets Act, which goes into effect next year, will require that companies designated as gatekeepers provide users of most popular operating systems with browser choice screens that ask them to select a default browser.

Among the designated gatekeepers – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Meta, and Microsoft – browser choice is relevant for Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows operating systems.

Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, on Thursday published a report [PDF] arguing that in order for browser choice screens to provide actual choice and not manipulated choice, the content and design of choice screen interfaces need to be tailored to promote competition rather than a specific vendor.

"Fundamentally, what this research shows is that the design details of browser choice interventions are absolutely critical," said Mozilla in a blog post. "Operating systems have the ability and incentive to push people to their own products — this is nothing new. We find that even small changes can impact the effectiveness of browser choice remedies."

Essentially, this report is a warning that competition regulators need to be involved in the minutiae of web and application design to avoid vendors creating dark patterns that steer users toward a specific choice. It also echoes the arguments being made in the US antitrust case against Google about the power of default settings.

Mozilla Research conducted a survey of 12,000 people in Germany, Poland, and Spain, who were using either Android or Windows. The org came away with five findings:

  1. Choice screens move people away from incumbent browsers and increase the share of independent browsers.
  2. Adding information about browsers decreases the share of incumbent browsers and increases satisfaction, while the order in which browsers are presented significantly affects choices.
  3. Showing the choice screen upon the first use of the pre-installed browser makes more people choose the default.
  4. The overwhelming majority of survey respondents (98 percent) prefer having a browser choice screen.
  5. Browser choice screens improve user satisfaction without significantly delaying the user.

None of this is particularly surprising but as Mozilla's report observes, choice screens have been required before but have been designed in such a way as to not change anything.

"The Google 2019 browser choice screen has been shown to have negligible effects," the report stated.

Microsoft made a similar observation in its April 15, 2021 letter [PDF] to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about the IT giant's view of choice screens.

"[W]here choice screens have been successful in the past, it was in situations where the markets were not tipped dramatically in the favor of the dominant firm and there were competitors that were already at scale, had overcome any network effects, and had strong brand awareness," said a Microsoft executive whose name has been redacted.

As an example, the letter cites Russian anti-monopoly rules that forced Google to present a choice screen on mobile devices for Google Search starting in 2017. Yandex, which already had a 30 percent search share on mobile devices and "sufficient brand recognition amongst users to make a choice screen approach feasible" ended up with a market share of 48 percent at the end of 2018, to the detriment of Google.

Microsoft also notes that the choice screen it was required to present between 2009 and 2014 coincided with a significant loss of Internet Explorer's market share to Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

In contrast, Microsoft pointed to the Android search screen presented to users in Europe in 2019. Because Google Search already had a 97 percent market share on mobile devices, the Windows biz explained, its market dominance and brand recognition remained more or less the same two years later.

Like Mozilla, Microsoft acknowledged that having choice alone is not sufficient to change market dynamics when there's a dominant player. And Microsoft also offered a list of key design considerations that should be considered for browser choice screens.

When browser choice screens show up in Europe next year, web designers will be at the forefront of competition policy. ®

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