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Antitrust: EU Investigating Google For Forcing Smart Device Manufacturers To Use Google Assistant

EU has asked manufacturers to provide any evidence showing that Google coerced them to make Google Assistant the default voice search app on their devices

The European Union (EU) is looking into whether Google forced device manufacturers to install Google Assistant as the default voice assistant on Android devices in a new antitrust investigation, according to a report from Mlex. The investigation, which has not officially been made public, will be focused on the rollout of Google Assistant in devices like connected cars, smart TVs and smartphones.  

The EU had commissioned an inquiry into antitrust practices in the smart devices sector last year. The results of the inquiry were released in June, and the regulator seems to have wasted no time in taking action, showing their desire to get ahead of market developments. Google is also currently being investigated by the EU over anti-competitive practices in digital advertising technology. Later this month, the company will also try to fight a US$5 billion fine imposed on it by the EU for antitrust practices related to Android OS for smartphones.

The EU has routinely taken big tech to task, setting the precedent for antitrust regulations across the world. This investigation against Google over voice assistants could shape the race for market dominance in voice assistants and the Internet of Things (IoT) sector, which also sees participation from tech giants like Apple and Amazon. 

Did Google Force It’s Hand? EU Asks Manufacturers

Regulators from the EU have asked manufacturers to provide any evidence showing that Google coerced them to make Google Assistant the default voice search app on their devices, Mlex reported. They are also investigating whether Google demands exclusivity from Android-based IoT devices, effectively banning rival technologies.

To install Android on their devices, device manufacturers have to sign an agreement with Google. Regulators at the EU suspect, according to the Mlex report, that Google only grants licenses to manufacturers if they agree to promote Google Assistant on their devices, excluding other alternatives. The regulator is also exploring other suspicions, including whether Google might be giving manufacturers a share of advertising revenues on the condition that they prioritize Google Assistant.

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In a statement to Mlex, a Google spokesperson said, “Android provides more choice than any other mobile platform. Manufacturers can choose which voice assistants to install on their devices and users can also choose which assistants to use and install.”

When asked about this investigation by Reuters, the EU declined to comment but pointed to comments made by its Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager in June. Vestager’s comments were based on the results of a study conducted by the EU which outlined antitrust concerns in the consumer IoT sector. “This analysis will feed into our future enforcement and regulatory action,” Vestager had said at the time. 

What Concerns Does EU Have About Competition In IoT?

The European Commission’s consumer IoT sector inquiry, launched in June 2020, gathered information from over 200 companies in the sector across Europe, Asia and the United States. Major areas of concern outlined in the results are:

  • Exclusivity and tying: Respondents were concerned about practices that prohibited the same smart device from being compatible with different voice assistants
  • Intermediary concerns: Voice assistants operate as intermediaries between the user and the consumer IoT service, controlling user relationships and discovery of IoT services
  • Access to user data: Voice assistants and smart device operators have extensive access to user data, giving them advantages in improving their services and dominating the market. Such data would allow them to leverage more easily into adjacent markets.
  • Lack of common standards: Proprietary technology in voice assistants create de facto standards that IoT service providers have to adhere to. A lack of common standards reduces interoperability, and integration processes are controlled by a handful of smart device operators.

Antitrust Investigations by The EU Targeting Big Tech

The EU has led the world in taking action on anti-competitive practices by big tech companies. Here are some of the antitrust investigations launched by the EU in recent years:

  • Google: In June this year, EU regulators launched a formal investigation into whether Google is stifling competition in digital advertising technology. The investigation will look into whether Google is exploiting its data advantage to cement itself in the digital ad market.
  • Facebook: Also in June, the EU started looking into Facebook’s use of data collected from rival services to distort competition in the classified ad market. The investigation aims to find out whether embedding Facebook’s classified ad service, Marketplace, on the social media platform gives it an advantage in reaching customers.
  • Apple: After Spotify flagged the issue last year, the EU launched an investigation into the distribution of music streaming apps competing with Apple Music on Apple’s App Store. In April, preliminary findings declared that practices such as coercing rival music platforms to use Apple’s payment system and forcing them to give Apple a percentage of their subscription fees were in violation of EU’s antitrust laws.
  • Amazon: The European Commission launched a probe into Amazon over anti-competitive behaviour in 2019. They declared in November last year that the company breached European antitrust rules by using third-party seller data to make strategic business decisions like setting prices.

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