Australia extends tech giant probe to Google and Apple browser domination

The ACCC is concerned with the choice of browser options afforded to Australians.

With the News Media Bargaining Code out of the way, the Australian government has moved its tech giant battle to the browser scene, keeping Google in its crosshairs while putting Apple under the microscope.

Led by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the new battle is focused on "choice and competition in internet search and web browsers".

The consumer watchdog on Thursday put out a call for submissions, with a number of questions posed in a discussion paper [PDF], centred on internet browser defaults.

It claimed Apple's Safari is the most common browser used in Australia for smartphones and tablets, accounting for 51% of use. This is followed by Chrome with 39%, Samsung Internet with 7%, and with less than 1%, Mozilla Firefox.

This shifts on desktop, with Chrome being the most used browser with 62% market share, followed by Safari with 18%, Edge 9%, and Mozilla 6%.

The ACCC said it's concerned with the impact of pre-installation and default settings on consumer choice and competition, particularly in relation to online search and browsers. It's also seeking views on supplier behaviour and trends in search services, browsers, and operating systems, and device ecosystems that may impact the supply of search and browsers to Australian consumers.

It wants views also on the extent to which existing consumer harm can arise from the design of defaults and other arrangements.

As raised in its Digital Platforms Inquiry report handed down in July 2019, the ACCC is curious as to whether the European Commission's (EC) 2018 Android decision would be practical if applied down under.

The EC found that Google imposed illegal restrictions on Android device manufacturers and mobile network operators between 2011 and 2014 to cement its dominant position in general internet search. The EC fined Google €4.34 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules in respect of abuse of a dominant position.

Google in response said that it would do more to ensure that Android phone owners in the EU are aware of the "wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones".

The search engine giant then began presenting new screens to Android users in Europe with an option to download search apps and browsers.

The ACCC at the time gave Google six months to introduce similar options for Australian Android users -- by 26 January 2020 -- and said failure to do so would see the regulator submit to the government that it should "consider compelling Google to offer this choice".

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In its discussion paper, the ACCC is seeking input to determine the effectiveness of Google's Android choice screen rollout in Europe and whether it is fit for purpose within Australia.

It also wants to hear whether there are any proposals, other than choice screens, that may facilitate competition and improve consumer choice in the supply of general search services and browsers in Australia.

The watchdog is similarly interested in how the design of user interfaces on devices, such as widgets, search bars, and the steps required for a consumer to change a default search service affect how consumers use these services.

Further questions posed by the ACCC focus on barriers for entry into the browser scene and the business models of browsers.

"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.

A choice screen report is due by the ACCC in September.

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