In a blog post titled “The Heart of the Matter” published on January 13, Google has passionately defended its Android and Play Store policies in light of the recent antitrust orders issued by the Competition Commission of India (CCI). “At a time when only half of India’s population is connected, the directions in the CCI’s order strikes a blow at the ecosystem-wide efforts to accelerate digital adoption in the country,” Google stated, adding that “foundational disruptions at this stage could set us back years and undo the deep investments and effort made by OEMs, developers and the industry overall.”
Why does this matter: The orders by India’s competition watchdog require Google to make significant changes to Android and Play Store, which could fundamentally change the two platforms. While many pro-competitive benefits could arise from these changes, it’s not black and white as these changes can also harm users and developers in unintended ways, which we had pointed out in an earlier story and Google details in its blog post. What we’d like the appeal process to show us is whether CCI accounted for the security and privacy risks before issuing its far-reaching orders.
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What’s at risk according to Google?
1. Google cannot guarantee security for Android forks: Google claimed that the emergence of multiple versions of Android (known as Android forks), which the CCI requires Google to support, “harms the consistent and predictable ecosystem that has benefitted users and developers” because it would prevent Google from securing all devices as multiple versions of Android might not support the security and user safety features that Google provides.
“Lack of robust and consistent security upgrades will leave the users of those devices exposed to cybercrime, bugs, and malware – which is most troubling for the millions of new internet users who are especially vulnerable.” — Google
2. Sideloading and third-party app stores post threat to individual and national security: On the Play Store front, Google claimed that “predatory apps that expose users to financial fraud, data theft and a number of other dangers” are plenty, and while “Google holds itself accountable for the apps on Play Store and scans for malware as well compliance with local laws, the same checks may not be in place for apps sideloaded from other sources. Unchecked proliferation of such apps on less secure devices can expose vast swathes of Indian users to risk of their data being exposed and pose threats for individual and national security.”
3. Smartphones will get more expensive: Google argued that Android’s free open-source software and suite of apps helped smartphone manufacturers make devices affordable. “Today, any user can get their hands on a fully functional smartphone at less than Rs. 6000 from numerous brands,” Google stated. The company also pointed out that Android forks will not support security features released by Google, making this the responsibility of smartphone manufacturers instead, “who will need to invest extensively in creating consistent, all-year-round security upgrades themselves. This will result in higher costs for the OEMs, and consequently, more expensive devices for Indian consumers.”
4. Higher cost for app developers and lack of availability of apps for users: “As a result of Android’s compatibility program, when developers write apps for Android, the apps can immediately access Android’s vast base of users,” Google stated. “In a forked Android environment, small developers will be forced to prioritize which of the various incompatible Android ‘forks’ they write and maintain apps for, as their costs will increase with each additional version they support.”
“This will be highly damaging not only for developers, but also consumers, who will be prevented from accessing important online services, simply because developers may be unable to make the investments necessary to develop apps for their device,” Google added.
5. Android gives more choice to consumers and developers, not less: While CCI claimed that Google’s policies have reduced choices for consumers across a wide range of services, Google claims that “Android enables more choice, not less.” To support its claim, Google pointed out that –
- A free Android OS allows device manufacturers to build devices at various price points, giving users “unprecedented choice”.
- Android allows smartphone manufacturers to pre-install any other app and app stores.
- Users are allowed to download apps from outside app stores (sideloading) and “in such cases, Android displays alerts to ensure users act with awareness for their own safety”.
- Developers are provided with a vast platform (Play Store) to reach users, in addition with the “tools, predictability, timely security upgrades and multiple monetisation options” that come along with it.
- Android provides the “right balance of a consistent security bedrock through baseline compatibility, while device manufacturers have the choice to create bespoke and highly differentiated user experiences for their brands on top of that.”
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