By Jeff Gould, SafeGov.

The EC investigation of Android has implications for privacy as well as antitrust

This week the European Commission took not one but two momentous actions against Google. The first — which has received the lion’s share of media attention — was the filing of formal antitrust charges accusing Google of abuse of dominance in online search. The second, less noticed but arguably of greater import, was the launch of an investigation into Google’s practice of forcing mobile device manufacturers to use its purportedly open source Android operating system in only the way that Google prefers.

Android of course is the world’s most widely used operating system, with a rapidly growing user base that now numbers more than one billion. While we usually think of it as something for consumers, Android devices are also used in countless enterprises, schools and government agencies. It’s worth taking a look at what the EU’s Android investigation means for those users.

The EC’s questions about Android turn on the issue of what apps hardware manufacturers are allowed to install on their devices. The EC notes that Android is in principle open source. So manufacturers ought to be able to do whatever they like with it. But in practice this is not so.

Most firms selling smartphones and tablets in the U.S. and Europe believe that consumers want easy access to Google’s most popular services — especially Search, Maps and YouTube. So the manufacturers must seek Google’s permission to pre-install these services on their devices. But Google enforces a draconian bargain in exchange. If you want to install one of our services, it tells device makers, you must install them all (the total required number is now over twenty). Furthermore, you can’t set as default on your devices any search engine other than Google. Finally, if you want to sell Android devices fully loaded with Google services in this manner, you must give up the right to sell any devices using an alternative version (or “fork”) of Android loaded with non-Google services that compete with ours.

Whether such practices are legal under EU antitrust law is the question that the EC’s investigators will now look into. But we should ask why Google insists on dictating its terms to device makers in this way.

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Jeff Gould has 20 years of experience in technology publishing and IT market research. Jeff currently serves as the president of SafeGov Inc.

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