EU: Google illegally used Android to dominate search, must pay $5B fine

The European Commission today fined Google $5.05 billion (€4.34 billion) for violating EU antitrust rules, saying that “Google has imposed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators to cement its dominant position in general Internet search.”

The commission said that Google is violating antitrust law by requiring phone manufacturers to pre-install the Google search app and Chrome browser “as a condition for licensing Google’s app store (the Play Store).”

Google also violated EU antitrust rules by “ma[king] payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators on condition that they exclusively pre-installed the Google Search app on their devices,” the commission said.

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European Commission Fines Google $5.1B for Favoring and Pre-Installing Own Services on Android

The European Commission hit Google with a $5.1 billion fine today, stating that the tech company broke EU antitrust laws by striking deals with Android phone manufacturers to favor Google’s services over rival services (via The New York Times).

Android P is the newest version of the software, set to launch this fall


Specifically, the European Commission pointed towards the Google search bar and Chrome web browser coming pre-installed on Android smartphones like those made by HTC, Huawei, and Samsung. With these options already in smartphones when users purchase them, other services are “unfairly boxed out.”

“Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine,” said Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s antitrust chief. “These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits. They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere. This is illegal under E.U. antitrust rules.”

Now, Google has 90 days to ends these practices or face penalties of up to 5 percent of the worldwide average daily revenues of parent company Alphabet. In response, Google’s European Twitter account confirmed that the company will appeal the Commission’s decision.



Google CEO Sundar Pichai commented on the decision in his own blog post today, pointing out that Android phones come preloaded “with as many as 40 apps from multiple developers,” not just Google. Users can delete them if they want and install their own choices after they purchase the smartphone.

According to Pichai, the EU fine “sends a troubling signal in favor of proprietary systems over open platforms.” Pichai also notes that Android phones compete with iOS phones, a factor that isn’t brought up in the ruling.

Today, the European Commission issued a competition decision against Android, and its business model. The decision ignores the fact that Android phones compete with iOS phones, something that 89 percent of respondents to the Commission’s own market survey confirmed.

It also misses just how much choice Android provides to thousands of phone makers and mobile network operators who build and sell Android devices; to millions of app developers around the world who have built their businesses with Android; and billions of consumers who can now afford and use cutting-edge Android smartphones.

The European Commission has targeted Google previously, fining the company $2.8 billion last year for unfairly favoring its own services in Google search results. For the new $5.1 billion fine, the EU is said to be taking advanced measures to “rein in the clout” of American tech companies, but Google is not expected to back down from its appeal decision and has begun to populate a hashtag on Twitter — #AndroidWorks — against the Commission’s fine. According to The New York Times, the case is now “likely to drag on for years.”

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Google’s Cloud Launcher is now the GCP Marketplace, adds container-based applications

Cloud Launcher has long been Google’s marketplace for cloud-based application from third-party vendors that lets you deploy them in Google’s cloud with just a few clicks. That name never quite highlighted that Cloud Launcher also included commercial applications and that Google cloud handle the billing for those and combine it with a user’s regular GCP bill, so the company has now decided to rebrand the services as the GCP Marketplace.

That’s not all, though. With today’s update, Google is also adding both commercial and open source container-based applications to the service that users can easily deploy to the Google Kubernetes Engine (or any other Kubernetes service). Until today, the marketplace only featured traditional virtual machines, but a lot of customers were surely looking for container support, too.

As Google rightly argues, Kubernetes Engine can take a lot of the hassle out of managing containers, but deploying them to a Kubernetes cluster is still often a manual process. Google promises that it’ll only take a click to deploy an application from the marketplace to the Kubernetes engine or any other Kubernetes deployment.

As Google Cloud product manager Brian Singer told me, his team worked closely with the Kubernetes Engine team to make this integration as seamless as possible. The solutions that are in the marketplace today include developer tools like GitLab, graph database Neo4j, the Kasten data management service, as well as open source projects like WordPress, Spark, Elasticsearch, Nginx and Cassandra.

 

Google launches its first WeChat mini program as its China experiments continue

Google is continuing to test new strategies in China after the U.S. search giant released its first mini program for WeChat, the country’s hugely popular messaging app.

WeChat is used by hundreds of millions of Chinese people daily for services that stretch beyond chat to include mobile payments, bill paying, food delivery and more. Tencent, the company that operates WeChat, added mini programs last year and they effectively operate like apps that are attached to the service. That means that users bypass Google Play or Apple’s App Store and install them from WeChat.

Earlier this year, Tencent added support for games — “mini games” — and the Chinese firm recently said that over one million mini programs have been created to date. Engagement is high, with some 500 million WeChat users interacting with at least one each month.

WeChat has become the key distribution channel in China and that’s why Google is embracing it with its first mini program — 猜画小歌, a game that roughly translates to ‘Guess My Sketch.’ There’s no English announcement but the details can be found in this post on Google’s Chinese blog, which includes the QR code to scan to get the game.

The app is a take on games like Zynga’s Draw Something, which puts players into teams to guess what the other is drawing. Google, however, is adding a twist. Each player teams up with an AI and then battles against their friends and their AIs. You can find an English version of the game online here.

Google’s first WeChat mini program is a sketching game that uses AI

The main news here isn’t the game, of course, but that Google is embracing mini programs, which have been christened as a threat to the Google Play Store itself.

‘When in China… play by local rules’ and Google has taken that to heart this year.

The company recently introduced a Chinese version of its Files Go Android device management app which saw it join forces with four third-party app stores in China in order to gain distribution. This sketching game has lower ambitions but, clearly, it’ll be a learning experience for Google that might prompt it to introduce more significant apps or services via WeChat in the future.

Indeed, Google has been cozying up to Tencent lately after inking a patent deal with the Chinese internet giant, investing in its close ally JD.com and combining on investment deals together, including biotech startup XtalPi.

That’s one side of a new initiative to be more involved in China, where it has been absent since 2010 after redirecting its Chinese search service to Hong Kong in the face of government pressure. In other moves, it has opened an AI lab in Beijing and a more modest office in Shenzhen while it is bringing its startup demo day event to China for the first time with a Shanghai event in September.

Finally, in a touch of irony, Google’s embrace of WeChat’s ‘app store-killing’ mini programs platform comes just hours before the EU is expected to levy a multibillion-euro penalty onit for abusing its dominant position on mobile via Android.

Nest’s CEO is stepping down

Five months ago, Google decided to rein Nest in. After 4 years as a mostly independent division of the company, Nest was rolled into Google’s hardware team.

Today, more big changes: Nest CEO Marwan Fawaz is stepping down, according to a report by CNET. The reason? Employees at Nest had reportedly been pushing for a change, hoping for someone who had more leadership experience.

This news comes just a little over two years after Fawaz took over the role after the departure of co-founder Tony Fadell.

Fawaz is said to be staying on in an advisory role, with Nest pushing forward under Rishi Chandra, who’s been overseeing most of Google’s hardware efforts (Home, Chromecast, Google WiFi, etc) as VP of Home Products for over 3 years.

As they confirmed to us back in February: the Nest brand itself will continue to live on at Google, and the company isn’t expecting any layoffs.

We’ve reached out to Google and Nest for more details, and will update accordingly if we hear back.

Dems and GOP unite, slamming Facebook for allowing violent Pages

In a rare moment of agreement, members of the House Judiciary Committee from both major political parties agreed that Facebook needed to take down Pages that bullied shooting survivors or called for more violence. The hearing regarding social media filtering practices saw policy staffers from Facebook, Google and Twitter answering questions, though Facebook absorbed the brunt of the ire. The hearing included Republican Representative Steve King ask “What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?”

The meatiest part of the hearing centered on whether social media platforms should delete accounts of conspiracy theorists and those inciting violence, rather than just removing the offending posts.

The issue has been a huge pain point for Facebook this week after giving vague answers for why it hasn’t deleted known faker Alex Jones’ Infowars Page, and tweeting that “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news.” Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management Monica Bickert today reiterated that “sharing information that is false does not violate our policies.”

As I detailed in this opinion piece, I think the right solution is to quarantine the Pages of Infowars and similar fake news, preventing their posts or shares of links to their web domain from getting any visibility in the News Feed. But deleting the Page without instances of it directly inciting violence would make Jones a martyr and strengthen his counterfactual movement. Deletion should be reserved for those that blatantly encourage acts of violence.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) asked about how Infowars’ claims in YouTube videos that Parkland shooting’s survivors were crisis actors squared with the company’s policy. Google’s Global Head of Public Policy and Government Relations for YouTube Juniper Downs explained that “We have a specific policy that says that if you say a well-documented violent attack didn’t happen and you use the name or image of the survivors or victims of that attack, that is a malicious attack and it violates our policy.” She noted that YouTube has a “three strikes” policy, it is “demoting low-quality content and promoting more authoritative content,” and it’s now showing boxes atop result pages for problematic searches, like “is the earth flat?” with facts to dispel conspiracies.

Facebook’s answer was much less clear. Bickert told Deutch that “We do use a strikes model. What that means is that if a Page, or profile, or group is posting content and some of that violates our polices, we always remove the violating posts at a certain point” (emphasis mine). That’s where Facebook became suddenly less transparent.

“It depends on the nature of the content that is violating our policies. At a certain point we would also remove the Page, or the profile, or the group at issue,” Bickert continued. Deutch then asked how many strikes conspiracy theorists get. Bickert noted that “crisis actors” claims violate its policy and its removes that content. “And we would continue to remove any violations from the Infowars Page.” But regarding Page-level removals, she got wishy-washy, saying, “If they posted sufficient content that it would violate our threshold, then the page would come down. The threshold varies depending on the different types of violations.”

“The threshold varies”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) gave the conservatives’ side of the same argument, citing two posts by the Facebook Page “Milkshakes Against The Republican Party” that called for violence, including one that saying “Remember the shooting at the Republican baseball game? One of those should happen every week.”

While these posts have been removed, Gaetz asked why the Page hadn’t. Bickert noted that “There’s no place for any calls for violence on Facebook.” Regarding the threshold, she did reveal that “When someone posts an image of child sexual abuse imagery their account will come down right away. There are different thresholds for different violations.” But she repeatedly refused to make a judgement call about whether the Page should be removed until she could review it with her team.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Showing surprising alignment in such a fractured political era, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Florida said “I’m agreeing with the chairman about this and I think we arrived at the same exact same place when we were taking about at what threshold does Infowars have their Page taken down after they repeatedly denied the historical reality of massacres of children in public school.”

Facebook can’t rely on a shadowy “the threshold varies” explanation any more. It must outline exactly what types of violations incur not only post removal but strikes against their authors. Perhaps that’s something like “one strike for posts of child sexual abuse, three posts for inciting violence, five posts for bullying victims or denying documented tragedies occurred, and unlimited posts of less urgently dangerous false information.”

Whatever the specifics, Facebook needs to provide specifics. Until then, both liberals and conservatives will rightly claim that enforcement is haphazard and opaque.

For more from today’s hearing:

Google’s new ‘Grab and Go’ project helps business loan Chromebooks to their employees

At Google, the company offers a ‘Grab and Go’ program that allows employees to use self-service stations to quickly borrow and return Chromebooks without having to go through a lengthy IT approval process. Now, it’s bringing this same idea to other businesses.

Chromebooks have found their place in education and a number of larger enterprise companies are also getting on board with the idea of a centrally managed device that mostly focuses on the browser. That’s maybe no surprise, given that both schools and enterprises are pretty much looking for the same thing from these devices.

At Google, the system has seen more than 30,000 users that have completed more than 100,000 loans so far.

While Google wants others to run similar programs (and use more Chromebooks in the process) it’s worth noting that this is a limited preview program and that Google isn’t building and selling racks or other infrastructure for this. As a Google spokesperson told us, Google will give companies that want to try this the open source code to build this system and advise them through the setup and deployment. It will also engage with partners to help them build the hardware or set up a ‘Grab and Go’ as a service system.

Employees who want to use one of these ‘Grab and Go’ stations simply pick up a laptop, sign in and move on with their day. When they are done, they simply return the laptop. That’s it. Easy.

That’s not quite as exciting as Google building and selling racks of Chromebooks, but this project is clearly another move to bring Chromebooks to the enterprise. Specifically, Google says that this program is meant for frontline workers who only need devices for a short period of time, as well as shift workers and remote workers.

The Google Assistant app will walk you through your day

Google’s Assistant app mostly functions as a surrogate for its line of connected Home devices. But what about all of that information it’s aggregating? The company will start putting that to use, providing a “visual snapshot” of the day to come.

The new feature, rolling out to the app on Android and iOS today, pulls in a bunch of relevant information from across Google services, including calendar, reminders, stocks, package deliveries, flights, restaurant/movie reservations and suggested Actions. It also provides travel times to and from appointments to offer up a better idea of when to leave.

More features will be rolling out soon, including notes from Google Keep,  Any.do, Bring and Todoist, along with parking reminders, nearby activities and recommendations for music and podcasts. In other words, the Google Assistant app is angling to become your one stop shop for — well, basically ever single thing you do in a given day.

While Amazon’s Alexa play has been centered around commerce, it’s pretty clear that Google’s in it for the same reason as always: information. Using a voice controlled smart speaker is yet another way to gather all of that data from a user, and now it’s being out to use in a single spot.

It’s an obvious play — and an important reminder of just how much information these companies have on us at a given time.