Europe’s seemingly never-ending battle with U.S. tech companies continued this week when a top European court ruled the U.S. “Safe Harbor” pact was invalid, thus throwing trans-Atlantic data-sharing into question. But this is just one of many examples of how technology faces barriers when different laws, legislation, and cultures are at play.
Uber, too, has been feeling the heat across the E.U., as traditional taxi drivers fight the new world order. And Facebook recently had to restrict the availability of a new app in Europe because it uses facial-recognition technology to identify people in photos, helping to illustrate the tension between ethics, privacy, and innovation.
Earlier this week, Google was dealt a major blow in Russia, when regulators sided with local competitor Yandex over anti-competitive claims surrounding Google’s supposed insistence that Android phones must come with certain Google apps preinstalled.
The Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) has requested that Google “eliminate the violation of the law on protection of competition in terms of abuse of dominant position in the market, pre-installed application stores in the operating system ‘Android’,” reported TechCrunch. It’s not clear yet how Google will respond, and how the ruling will be implemented (if at all), but the company officially has until November 18 to comply with the FAS findings.
While Russia is just a single country within Europe, and not even part of the European Union, Google’s Android woes do extend into the broader region. Back in May, news emerged that the European Commission (E.C.) had formally accused Google of using its dominance to bias search results, after a four-year investigation. However, at the same time, it revealed it was also to open a second probe into Android — and it’s all about anti-competition.
The Commission said it will assess:
If, by entering into anticompetitive agreements and/or by abusing a possible dominant position, Google has illegally hindered the development and market access of rival mobile operating systems, mobile communication applications and services in the European Economic Area (EEA).
In effect, Europe is looking into whether Google has stymied the ability to create competing versions and services on Android, by forcing manufacturers to bundle Google apps and services on their phones.
Open for business
For the uninitiated, Android’s core selling point has traditionally been that it’s open source, and the base Android Open Source Project (AOSP) can be adapted and used by anybody. There are offshoots such as CyanogenMod that use Google Play Services, while Amazon has created a noncompatible “fork” with its own Amazon Appstore installed (in lieu of Google Play) that is devoid of Google’s apps and services. But many Google apps and services are popular, so most manufacturers want their users to be able to easily access Google Maps and such like, but not necessarily be forced into preinstalling every app or service stipulated by Google.
While services such as Google Play, Google Now, Google Maps, YouTube, and so on go hand-in-hand with Android for most people, they aren’t actually part of Android itself. The core Android platform is part of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which constitutes 84 technology companies who help develop Android and deploy Android devices commercially. Members aren’t allowed to produce “forked” Android devices, a move that’s partly designed to prevent fragmentation. Manufacturers wanting access to Google Play and full use of the Android brand and ecosystem have to sign up to the OHA.
What Europe is now doing is examining Google’s agreements and behavior with the smartphone fraternity to see if any of its actions amount to “anti-competitive.” It’s looking at (emphasis theirs):
whether Google has illegally hindered the development and market access of rival mobile applications or services by requiring or incentivizing smartphone and tablet manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google’s own applications or services;
whether Google has prevented smartphone and tablet manufacturers who wish to install Google’s applications and services on some of their Android devices from developing and marketing modified and potentially competing versions of Android (so-called “Android forks”) on other devices, thereby illegally hindering the development and market access of rival mobile operating systems and mobile applications or services;
whether Google has illegally hindered the development and market access of rival applications and services by tying or bundling certain Google applications and services distributed on Android devices with other Google applications, services and/or application programming interfaces of Google.
Russia’s move to curb Google’s stranglehold on the Android smartphone market is a notable development, though there is scope for many twists and turns before this reaches a conclusion. But the European investigation will certainly be one to watch.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s vice president of engineering for Android, has previously argued that the mobile operating system has created more choice for consumers and companies who build and sell smartphones.
“We are thankful for Android’s success and we understand that with success comes scrutiny,” he said. “But it’s not just Google that has benefited from Android’s success. The Android model has let manufacturers compete on their unique innovations. Developers can reach huge audiences and build strong businesses. And consumers now have unprecedented choice at ever-lower prices. We look forward to discussing these issues in more detail with the European Commission over the months ahead.”
Ultimately, manufacturers want access to the Android brand and ecosystem — Google Play, Google Maps, YouTube, and so on. But some of them — as well as companies that offer services that rival Google’s — want the Internet giant to have less say in what apps are bundled with the phones.
The broader European probe is still in its early stages, but judging by its recent verdicts against big U.S. tech companies, there is a real possibility that Google will be forced to change the way it goes about its business on mobile. And as news emerged a few weeks back that the U.S., too, was considering its position on Android, Google could be fighting a battle on many fronts.