Media & Entertainment

Google rivals call on EU to set rules for search engine preference menus


Image Credits: SOPA Images (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Four search engine rivals to Google have called on European Union lawmakers to address the tech giant’s continued dominance of the market by setting rules for search engine preference menus, arguing that the tech giant’s ability to set damaging defaults is continuing to limit how easily consumers can switch to non-Google alternatives.

In an open letter today, the non-tracking search engines DuckDuckGo and Qwant, along with tech-for-good focused Lilo and tree-planting not-for-profit Ecosia, urge the region’s lawmakers to go further to tackle the platform giants’ market power.

“The DMA [Digital Markets Act] urgently needs to be adapted to prevent gatekeepers from suppressing search engine competition,” they write. “Specifically, the DMA should enshrine in law a requirement for a search engine preference menu that would effectively ban Google from acquiring default search access points of the operating systems and the browsers of gatekeepers. Moreover, the DMA should ensure that, in addition to selecting their preferred search default in initial onboarding, consumers are able to one-click switch at any time via prompts from competing search engine apps or websites. These actions would finally lead to significant implications for competition in the search engine market and ensure there is real consumer choice online.”

The Commission presented the Digital Markets Act at the end of last year — proposing a fixed set of ex ante rules for so-called internet “gatekeepers” with the aim of ensuring that these intermediating internet giants cannot abuse their power to crush competitors and squeeze consumers.

Europe lays out its plan to reboot digital rules and tame tech giants

However the four Google search rivals say the proposed legislation doesn’t currently contain any measures that will help break the tech giant’s continued dominance of search in Europe (where it has around 93%) — hence their call for EU lawmakers to make amendments to add binding rules for search preference screens so that consumers always have an effortless ability to switch their default search engine choice, whether on mobile or desktop.

While the Commission was responsible for the original draft of the DMA, the EU’s other core institutions — the European Parliament and member states, via the EU Council — have to agree on the details so negotiations over the exact shape of the regulation are continuing.

We welcome the Commission’s goals with the Digital Markets Act (DMA) but the DMA fails to address the most acute barrier in search: Google’s hoarding of default positions,” the four search rivals also write. “Google would not have become the overall market gatekeeper they are today without years of locking up these defaults. If the DMA fails to address this fundamental issue, we believe the status quo will continue, leaving the root cause of this problem unchanged.”

Google has been contacted for comment on the claims.

Back in 2018, the EU’s competition commission fined Google $5 billion over antitrust abuses in how it operates its Android smartphone platform.

Following that intervention the tech giant introduced a regional search preference screen that was shown on setting up a new Android smartphone in Europe. However Google quickly implemented a sealed bids auction model that required rivals to pay it (and outbid each other) to appear in one of the available slots, which competitors immediately decried as unfair and non-transparent.

Google to auction slots on Android default search ‘choice screen’ in Europe next year, rivals cry ‘pay-to-play’ foul

Some three years later, following another intervention by the Commission — and after absolutely no dent in Google’s search marketshare in Europe — the tech giant finally announced it would drop the auction model, replacing it with a choice screen that displays eligible search rivals without requiring a fee.

But, again, rivals quickly pointed out continuing limitations with Google’s “remedy” — such as the fact it only applies to mobile devices, not to users of Google’s browser Chrome on desktop devices; and the fact that Android users are only shown the choice screen on setup or at a factory reset, so most of the time they use a device they do not see it.

DuckDuckGo, for example, has been loudly pressing the case for a “truly fair” search choice that only requires one click for consumers to switch — not the 15+ clicks it says it takes to switch the default search engine on an Android device currently at any other point after initial setup (or a factory reset).

Using such dark patterns to lock in self-preferencing defaults is something that should be proscribed by EU law, the search rivals argue.

“Google-imposed limitations make it hard for consumers to adopt other search engines, despite the Commission’s antitrust decision,” they argue. “Like MEP Yon-Courtin proposed in her draft report for the Economic Affairs committee, we believe a properly designed preference menu should be mandated more broadly.”

DuckDuckGo presses the case for true ‘one-click’ search competition on Android

We’ve reached out to the Commission for comment on the call for dedicated search preference screen rules to be baked into the DMA and will update this report with any response.

Update: A Commission spokesperson confirmed it has taken note of the letter, adding: “We are of course aware of the ongoing debate in the European Parliament and Council.”

The DMA already includes several provisions specifically geared towards injecting contestability in the search engine sector, such as an obligation for gatekeepers to make essential data available to competing search engine providers. It also includes a strong anti-circumvention clause,” the spokesperson also said. 

“The Commission is engaging constructively with both co-legislators in their objective to making the DMA most effective in achieving its goals in practice.”

Where’s the remedy?

The European Commission has — for years — shied away from imposing specific remedies on Google, despite a string of antitrust enforcements. Instead EU lawmakers have typically said it is up to Google to figure out exactly how to comply with its various orders to cease infringements in areas like product search, search ad brokering and Android.

The result of such a hands-off approach by the EU’s executive is that Google has been able to find ways to maintain its dominance of key strategic markets like search — in spite of a string of high-profile antitrust enforcements in Europe.

It’s an uncomfortable record for the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, who has carved out a reputation as the “iron lady” willing to take on Big Tech — yet whose enforcements in the digital sphere haven’t actually moved the needle on platform giants’ market share. (Nor blocked Google from continued consolidation.)

However some EU member states are starting to take a much more hands on approach to reigning in Big Tech’s market abuse, which looks like it will have an impact.

France’s competition authority, for example, recently extracted a series of interoperability requirements from Google in a case related to self-preferencing of its adtech.

While Germany’s Federal Cartel Office started this year armed with beefed-up powers to impose ex ante remedies on digital giants that are deemed to have substantial market power. It’s now in the process of assessing whether Google — and a number of other tech giants — meet that bar. If it finds they do it looks eager to get to work setting preemptive rules for how they can operate in Germany.

Outside the EU, the U.K. is also reforming domestic competition rules to clip Big Tech’s wings. It’s in the process of shaping an ex ante regime for digital giants with what it describes as “strategic market status” — that, unlike the Commission’s approach with the DMA, won’t be one-size-fits-all.

Instead the U.K. has said it wants to tailor rules to the specific business — which would give its regulators more leeway to, for example, impose a search preference menu remedy on a firm like Google if they decide such a step is necessary.

The Commission’s centralized single set of rules for Big Tech does, therefore, look like it could end up being a weak tool in the face of extremely well-resourced “innovators” who have years of experience building and iterating services that are designed to eliminate friction and topple barriers to greater scale.

The EU’s executive risks being caught flat-footed on the issue of tech antitrust at a time when lawmakers all around the world are fired up and active on the issue — from China to the U.S.

It’s also interesting to note how, in the wake of a very bad week for (another tech giant) Facebook, including Congressional testimony by the latest tech whistleblower, Francis Haugen, EU commissioners were falling over themselves to tweet about their “urgency” to tackle Big Tech:

Antitrust chief Vestager also tweeted in the wake of the global Facebook outage — which was also an Instagram and a WhatsApp outage, since all three social services run on the same infrastructure, all being owned by Facebook — with the EU’s EVP saying the episode demonstrated the need for “alternatives and choices in the tech market.”

Given that headline anti-consolidation message, EU citizens might be forgiven for asking why Vestager’s department hasn’t blocked a single tech acquisition — including Google’s recent gobbling of health tech company Fitbit?

How exactly does Vestager propose to support startups and alternatives in gaining the necessary scale to challenge platform giants?

Sadly her tweet didn’t contain any solutions — so the search for a remedy goes on.

It also remains to be seen where the Commission’s next Google antitrust investigation will go.

This summer the bloc’s executive confirmed it was looking into the tech giant’s adtech — lagging antitrust interventions already been taken elsewhere in the region, including in the U.K. and France.

As for Google, the tech giant has been busy fighting the Commission’s existing antitrust enforcements against it.

Last week its lawyers were up in court for their appeal against the Commission’s $5 billion Android antitrust fine — claiming that penalty was based on flawed calculations, was not “appropriate” and that it had not had any anti-competitive intent.

France fines Google $268M for adtech abuses and gets interoperability commitments

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before the Senate

More TechCrunch

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

13 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

15 hours ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise

X, formerly Twitter, turned TweetDeck into X Pro and pushed it behind a paywall. But there is a new column-based social media tool in town, and it’s from Instagram Threads.…

Meta Threads is testing pinned columns on the web, similar to the old TweetDeck

As part of 2024’s Accessibility Awareness Day, Google is showing off some updates to Android that should be useful to folks with mobility or vision impairments. Project Gameface allows gamers…

Google expands hands-free and eyes-free interfaces on Android