Following its acrimonious battle with Google and Facebook over media payment laws, the Australian regulator is now targeting the dominance of Google’s search engine and web browser services.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is seeking submissions from stakeholders, including consumers and industry participants, to examine the possibility of mandating “choice screens” in all new smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Choice screens appear when a user starts up their device and it shows the consumer a list of alternative web browser or search engines to choose from, rather than just the one service already preselected by the manufacturer.
Such a move would seek to counteract Google’s dominance in the space, with Google Search being the default search service for over 95 percent of mobile devices in Australia.
Manufacturers of desktops, tablets, and mobiles typically include a pre-installed operating system, and a specific web browser. Web browsers, in turn, often include a default search service, which is embedded within the browser.
According to the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report Google’s Chrome is pre-installed in nearly all Android devices (owned by Google), with Google Search being the default search service.
Also, the U.S. Department of Justice claimed in 2020 that Google is paying Apple U.S. $8–$12 billion each year to be the default search engine across all its devices and services, including Apple’s web browser Safari, its voice activated assistant Siri, and Spotlight.
“We know that, in general, setting a default option substantially increases the likelihood that consumers and businesses will stick with that option. This can have the effect of reducing competition and consumer choice in the supply of these services,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said in a statement.
“We’re also interested in competition in the supply of web browsers in Australia and the linkages between search services, web browsers, operating systems and devices,” he added. “The relationships between suppliers, through vertical integration or contractual arrangements, may impact the supply of search services and browsers to Australians.”
“We would like to hear from consumers and businesses about the impact of the pre-installation of services and default settings on devices on their use of these services.”
Dr. Rob Nicholls, associate professor at the University of New South Wales and competition law expert, argued that government action may not be enough, “The actual effect on Google is minimal as consumers tend to choose Chrome based on functionality and the portability of settings.”
Google Chrome is heavily integrated with a suite of other free services used by organisations and businesses including Google Search, Gmail, Maps, News, Drive, Maps, Docs, and YouTube.
The ACCC is following in the footsteps of European regulators, who compelled Google to introduce choice screens in 2019.
“Following the changes we made to comply with the European Commission’s ruling last year, we’ll start presenting new screens to Android users in Europe with an option to download search apps and browsers,” Paul Gennai, product management director of Google wrote in a blog.
The ACCC has been tasked by the government to investigate the progress of the European decision and its influence on competition.
The investigation is part of a five-year inquiry into the supply of digital platforms and services in Australia, with reports to be provided every six months targeting different facets of the online landscape.
The latest examination of Google’s search comes after a recent report into the tech giant’s dominance of the digital advertising industry, and the rollout of the contentious New Media Bargaining Code, which saw Facebook ban news content on its platform throughout Australia.