So-called “ethical” search engine Ecosia has confirmed that it won’t take part in Google’s closed auction to become the default search provider on Android phones in Europe, and has called on the internet giant to halt its “damaging monopolostic behavior” that is “unethical and anti-competitive.”
The German company, which dedicates the bulk of its profits globally to planting trees, has called Google’s auction an “insult to the European Commission and to the principle of equality in front of the law,” and argued that the move artificially limits user options.
Ecosia also argued that search engines driven by a specific purpose besides profits — for example, ones that focus on privacy or fighting the climate crisis — will not be likely to succeed in the auction.
“Alternative search engines that focus on privacy or specific causes are unlikely to be able to competitively bid in this suggested auction set-up,” the company said. “Profit focused partners, many of whom have access to higher monetizing Google ads, automatically have better odds in this setup. This means that the competitors which are purpose-driven (and not solely profit orientated) are conveniently removed from the auction process.”
VentureBeat reached out to Google for comment on Ecosia’s concerns, but has yet to hear back from the company.
By way of a quick recap, Google announced in early August that it planned to hold an auction to allow alternative search engines to become the default providers on mobile devices in Europe. Starting in 2020, everyone who sets up a new Android device, or factory resets their existing device, will see a choice screen asking them to select which search engine they wish to use as a default.
Search providers are required to apply for inclusion through a bidding process to become one of three alternative choices to Google Search.
The move was in response to a record $5 billion fine issued last year by EU antitrust regulators for the way it bundled its services on Android, effectively forcing phone manufacturers to preinstall certain Google apps to gain access to others. In response to the fine, which the company is in the process of appealing, Google announced a complete overhaul of its Android licensing model in Europe, and earlier this year Google started suggesting alternative browser and search engines for Android users, though Chrome and Google Search were still enabled as default.
It should perhaps come as little surprise that Ecosia, which was founded out of Berlin in 2009, won’t be taking part in the auction. After Google’s announcement on August 2, Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll said:
This is really disappointing news — Ecosia is a not-for-profit search engine, and we use our revenue to plant trees in areas affected by deforestation or desertification, not to get into bidding wars. If we choose to enter an auction and pay Google for the privilege of being a search engine option on Android, this will potentially be at the expense of millions of trees we could otherwise have planted.
In the days that followed, other potential bidders seemingly ruled themselves out of the auction process. Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo, noted that while a multiple-choice screen holds potential, a “pay-to-play” auction with just four slots merely serves to limit users’ options as they’re not provided with the full array of alternatives. He also noted that this would help Google profit at the expense of its competition.
2) A pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots means consumers won't get all the choices they deserve, and Google will profit at the expense of the competition. We encourage regulators to work directly with Google, us, and others to ensure the best system for consumers.
— Gabriel Weinberg (@yegg) August 2, 2019
This is a sentiment that’s echoed by Ecosia. While Android already allows users to manually configure their default browser and search engine at any time, presenting users with just three alternatives during the device setup could imply that those are the only options available to them. This creates “artificial scarcity,” according to a statement Ecosia issued today.
“By artificially limiting user options, Google is creating scarcity where there is none,” it said. “This will unnecessarily increase costs for alternative search engines, and will keep new entrants from growing market share.”
France-based search company Qwant also took to Twitter last week to denounce the auction on a number of grounds.
“Qwant recalls that Google was condemned by the @EU_Commission on July 18, 2018, to pay a 4.34 billion euros fine for abusing its dominant position on Android, by imposing Google Search as the default search engine to almost all mobile phone manufacturers and their customers,” it said. “It is not up to Google to now charge its competitors for its faulty behavior and the amount of the fine, through an auction system that will benefit neither European consumers nor free competition, which should not be distorted by such process.”
It’s worth noting here that Google is also insisting that auction participants sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), with some competitors arguing that this is an example of how Google is trying to make it more difficult for them to provide feedback to the European Union about Google’s practices.
“Google has chosen to appeal its conviction of July 18, 2018, in a proceeding in which Qwant is a party,” it said. “Qwant can not accept that the auction process is subject to a non-disclosure agreement as imposed by Google while its complaint is still pending. Such a confidentiality agreement has no other possible justification than the desire to silence its competitors on the anomalies they would see. This, again, is an unacceptable abuse of its dominant position.”
A common strand permeates all the complaints posted publicly so far, namely that Google’s much smaller rivals think that its behavior is not in the best interests of competition, and they want European regulators to intervene to ensure that Google designs a system that suits all impacted parties.
“We use our revenue to plant trees in areas affected by deforestation or desertification, not to get into expensive and unnecessary bidding wars with other search engines,” Kroll said. “We will be discussing our options with the EU Commission — it should be up to Android users which search engine they use, and absolutely not up to Google.”
Given the EU’s increasingly tough stance against the big U.S. tech companies, don’t be surprised if Google is forced to rethink this auction process.