The UK’s antitrust watchdog has moved to deepen its scrutiny of the mobile duopoly of Apple and Google — launching an in-depth investigation into elements of the pair’s mobile ecosystem dominance by probing its approach to rival mobile browsers and cloud gaming services it may be concerned about. Restrict competition and harm consumers.
This step comes after a market study conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). last year that led to a final report this summer That concluded there were major concerns about competition – the regulator found that the tech giants had what it described as an “effective duopoly over mobile ecosystems that allows them to exercise control over operating systems, app stores and web browsers on mobile devices”.
At the same time, the CMA proposed conducting what is known as a Market Investigation Reference (MIR) with two focus points: one looking at the market power of Apple and Google in mobile browsers; and another examining Apple’s restrictions on cloud gaming with its own App Store.
This proposal for MIR began a standard consultation process, in which the regulator seeks feedback on the scope of the proposed investigation, and today confirmed the decision to conduct a market investigation – opening what is referred to as a “Phase 2” (in-deep) that could take up to 18 months. month to complete.
The investigation will focus on providing mobile browsers and browser engines; and distributing cloud gaming services through application stores on mobile devices, the Capital Market Authority said today.
in press release Announcing the opening of the in-depth investigation, the CMA said that responses to the advisory showed “substantial” support for a more comprehensive investigation into how Apple and Google dominate the mobile browser market, and how Apple “restricts cloud gaming through its App Store” .
Its PR stresses the strategic importance of mobile browsers – noting that ‘most’ people use a mobile browser at least every day to access online content, adding that 97% of all mobile web surfing in the UK last year occurred on browsers Powered by either Apple hardware or Google’s browser engine – giving the pair huge power over users’ experiences.
In terms of cloud gaming services, the regulator is concerned that restrictions applied across mobile platforms could impede the growth of the developing sector, resulting in “losing out” gamers in the UK, as it puts it.
Web developers have complained that Apple’s limitations, combined with a proposed lack of investment in browser technology, drive up costs and frustration as they have to deal with bugs and glitches when building web pages, and have no choice but to create custom mobile apps when a site might be enough,” he wrote in the press release.
Ultimately, these restrictions limit choice and may make it difficult to get innovative new apps into the hands of UK consumers. At the same time, Apple and Google have argued that the restrictions are necessary to protect users. Market investigations by the CMA will take these concerns into account. and consider whether new rules are needed to achieve better results.”
Sarah Cardell, Interim CEO of the Capital Markets Authority, added in a statement:
“We want to make sure that UK consumers get the best new mobile data services, and that UK developers can invest in innovative new applications.
Many UK businesses and web developers tell us they feel constrained by restrictions imposed by Apple and Google. When the new digital markets system is implemented, it will likely address these types of issues. In the meantime, we use our existing powers to address problems where possible. We plan to investigate whether the concerns we heard are justified, and if so, identify steps to improve competition and innovation in these sectors.”
If, in the course of an investigation, the CMA identifies attributes that have a “negative effect on competition”, it can impose corrective remedies directly on companies – and may also make recommendations to other public bodies (such as sector regulators or the government) if it deems the need for new legislation to counter harmful activities.
Apple and Google respond
in 15 page response According to the advisory published by the CMA today, Apple argues against opening MIR in either mobile browsers or cloud gaming — denying its activity around the mobile browser includes limitations on competition and play claiming that its development of the WebKit browser engine allows “preserving the security, privacy, and performance of devices,” with It also warns of “extreme risks” if competing browsers are able to roll out new features without “an in-depth assessment of their own security and privacy implications”.
Regarding cloud gaming, it also denies any anti-competitive behavior – claiming that it does not prevent cloud gaming applications from appearing on the App Store, and further asserts that it does not try to prevent cloud gaming applications from emerging, while again playing up the claim of concern for consumer protection.
“Apple’s approach provides users with valuable choice, focused on security, privacy and performance, between ecosystems,” the iPhone maker also wrote in the response, emphasizing the claim that its approach to security and privacy “provides consumers with a clear alternative to the Android system, providing them with real choice across these criteria.” main competition “; And further warning: “The potential solutions being contemplated by the CMA risk removing this option and thus effectively restricting competition at the ecosystem level. Any action that would lead to such a loss in consumer choice and competition should be avoided.”
In itself 10 page response To the advisory, Google plays Android’s “openness” — claiming that its smartphone platform offers “users and businesses more choice than any other.”
It also argues that the key issues identified by the CMA at that point were not found in its mobile ecosystem – further suggesting that the restrictive behaviors the regulator is more interested in applying to Apple’s iOS, not Android, thus seeking to divert scrutiny organization to its competition. .
Google also argues that therapies proposed by the CMA (such as selection architectures) would be better suited for “iterative development and collaborative discussions” between industry and a dedicated unit within the CMA focused on Big Tech (aka Digital Markets Unit; DMU). He argues that such remedies are “not entirely appropriate to be considered or implemented in the context of a market investigation” – which seems like an attempt to direct/delay CMA intervention (given that the DMU is not yet enabled like the UK government Delayed submission of the necessary legislation Waiting for a unit to take on a Co-Design role can take years.)
Giving an overview of the responses to the consultation, the CMA said it had received 31 (out of 43) that were supportive of moving forward (with another 6 supporting and pushing for broader scope); And only 5 against — with Apple offering what it described as the strongest opposition.
It added that favorable responses included 22 web developers, software engineers, and several browser vendors, as well as individuals and advocacy groups, specifying that “most of them were critical of Apple’s limitations in these areas.”
“While we understand the rationale given by some stakeholders for expanding the scope into additional domains including for example desktops and general search, we have elected to retain the scope described above,” the CMA goes on in a note about the scope of the MIR. This is on the grounds that targeted investigation will be more manageable to achieve results in a timely manner. However, we are aware of the links between browsers and search services, both from a user experience and from a financial perspective, which we will take into account when assessing competition in providing mobile browsers and treatments. potential.”
With respect to cloud gaming, the focus of this investigation will be solely on the accessibility of these services to mobile app stores. As such, the investigation will not look more broadly at the market for cloud gaming services, the strength of competition between cloud gaming suppliers, or competition in games more specifically. general”, as it also specifies.
Apple and Google have been contacted to respond to the latest investigation by the Capital Markets Authority into their business activity.
An Apple spokesperson sent us this statement:
“Apple believes in vibrant, competitive markets where innovation can thrive. Through the App Store, we’ve helped millions of developers turn their best ideas into world-changing apps, spurring an app economy that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in the UK alone. We will continue to constructively engage with Competition and Markets Authority to explain how our approach enhances competition and choice, while ensuring that consumers’ privacy and security are always protected.”
A Google spokesperson also provided a statement:
“Android gives people more choice of apps and app stores than any other mobile platform. It enables developers to choose the browser engine they want, and has been the launch pad for millions of apps. We are committed to building thriving, open platforms that empower consumers and help developers build successful businesses.”
The CMA already has an open investigation into the Apple App Store, in which it was opened March 2021 – Given the terms and conditions that Cupertino imposes on third-party developers seeking to distribute mobile applications on iOS. This investigation is still ongoing.
while in May this yearopened an official investigation into Google’s adtech stack – a few months later declaring It will investigate allegations of collusion between Google and Facebook over ad bidding (also known as the “Jedi Blue” allegations). They are both still on the train.
The Capital Markets Authority also conducted it earlier as well An in-depth study in the field of online advertising Which raised a host of competition concerns and persuaded her to press the case for Digital Competition Law Reform. (although the latter is still being implemented under the current UK government).
UK competition regulator is also closely pursuing Monitor the display of Google ads across the Internet to turn off support for third-party tracking cookies in its Chrome browser and bring in a different set of ad-targeting technologies (aka Privacy Sandbox) – a recent intrusion that seems likely to contribute to a core alternative Adtech stack (which means it could be of significant impact for the future of the ad-supported web), although this will likely slow this migration evolution given that, for example, Google has had to conduct more thorough consultations with industry players to ensure it complies with its regulatory obligations to the CMA.
So the regulator has a growing set of investigations and other activities focused on tackling the market power of both Apple and Google – with what appears to be more intrusions spurting from their mobile ecosystems.
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