Google can expect to receive an expensive telling-off over its anti-trust practises in the European Union in the coming months, but this won’t lessen its power.
Margrethe Vestager – the EU’s top antitrust regulator – is dedicated to stopping abuses of power by large American tech companies, but according to a report by Reuters, even she struggles to truly affect the way that they do business.
A ruling in an EU case against Google, relating to the way that it runs its Android operating system, should come in the next few months. This is expected to cleave closely to recommendations made in 2016: it will include a multi-billion-dollar fine and an end to clauses and incentives that require Android smartphone makers to include services like Google Search and Google Maps.
However, despite these recommendations, the search giant is likely to remain dominant.
Google already holds 90 per cent of the European search market, making alternatives difficult to find. Its services, like Google Maps, are so embedded that an executive at ‘a major smartphone maker’ told Reuters that European wireless carriers have said that they would refuse to market phones without Google Search or the Google Play app store.
Mark Patterson, a Fordham University law professor who has researched Google antitrust issues, noted, “Once someone is entrenched, you can’t say, ‘stop’ and things get better.”
Tom Moss, a former Google employee now at peripheral maker Razer, who wrote parts of the first Android licensing agreement, said that a decade ago tight control had been necessary to standardise the experience across a fragmented ecosystem.
At this stage, though, Moss said that keeping those same policies “can seem heavy-handed, unfair and anticompetitive.”
On top of Google’s dominance in apps and services, there is the Android OS itself, the world’s most popular smartphone operating system. Challengers like Blackberry and Microsoft have been unable to affect the dominance of Google and Apple in the smartphone market.
Alternatives do exist; largely those that, like LineageOS, are based on open-source versions of Android. If they really wanted to, smartphone makers could abandon stock Android altogether (OnePlus already uses Lineage) – although the history of such a move (Amazon’s ill-fated Fire Phone) is not in their favour.
App developers would also be keen to see pre-installed alternatives to Google open up. Samsung, for example, has been pushing its own messaging and browser services for years.
Guillaume Champeau, of French search engine company Qwant, said an agreement his company had reached with a phone maker last year fell through because of Google’s rules.
“We want to have a chance to compete, but we need to be able to have agreements with phone manufacturers,” he said.
This is far from the first time that Google has been pulled up before the EU on an anti-trust case. Last year it was fined €2.4 billion for favouring its own online shopping services over others; and a few months later, it was accused of abusing its dominance in search to harass smaller rivals.
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