The weird tricks that Google uses to confuse you

By Anthony Cuthbertson

For many people, Google is the internet. It now dominates almost all aspects of our online lives, from how we search for information, to how we navigate from one place to another. But the route Google has taken to achieve this supremacy has been ruthless, illegal and occasionally unconventional.

For 85 per cent of smartphone users that have Google's Android mobile operating system, the slew of apps that come pre-installed on the device are often owned by Google. This includes the popular Chrome web browser and Google search engine, meaning users are forced to download competing apps through the Google Play Store if they want to use them. But data shows that only 1 per cent of people ever download a rival search app and only 10 per cent download a new browser.

A record $5 billion fine from the European Commission over Google's uncompetitive Android practices yesterday will precurse an unbundling that will no longer force smartphone makers to ship devices with pre-installed Google apps. It was the largest penalty ever levied against a single company and comes in the midst of a geo-political trade conflict between the US and Europe. The ruling even prompted US President Donald Trump to wade in with one of his inflammatory tweets.

But competitors to Google have since revealed the unorthodox practices that Google continues to use to maintain its near-monopolistic position.

Google rival DuckDuckGo, an internet privacy firm whose products include a search engine and a browser, responded to the EU crack down in a series of tweets revealing how Google has acted to assert its search dominance. Examples include preventing the DuckDuckGo search engine from being added to Chrome on Android, while featuring the Chrome widget prominently on most Android builds.

"We have felt its effects first hand for many years and has led directly to us having less market share on Android vs [Apple's] iOS," the privacy-focussed search engine stated.

"Their anti-competitve search behaviour isn't limited to Android. Every time we update our Chrome browser extension, all of our users are faced with an official-looking dialogue asking them if they'd like to revert their search settings and disable the entire extension."

But the most bizarre example of Google appearing to undermine DuckDuckGo is with the domain, which is owned by the search giant and automatically redirects visitors to DuckDuckGo says that this "consistently confuses" its users. 

The domain was first registered in 1995, according to ICAAN, long before either Google or DuckDuckGo existed. Google did not respond for a request for comment.

Google responded to the EU ruling by claiming Android has "created more choice for everyone, not less," adding that it would appeal the Commission's decision.

In a wide reaching blog post on Wednesday 18 July, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the decision ignored how Google had "painstakingly balanced the needs of everyone" in creating its open-sourced platform and that the ruling will upset this to the detriment of user experience.

"Rapid innovation, wide choice, and falling prices are classic hallmarks of robust competition and Android has enabled all of them," Pichai said. "Today's decision rejects the business model that supports Android, which has created more choice for everyone, not less."

But while Google's practices may have to change following the ruling, some analysts say the overall public perception of the technology giant is unlikely to change.

"I think the impact of the Google brand will be limited because consumers won't really be aware and don't really care about anti-trust issues the way they care about privacy issues," Thomas Husson, principal analyst at market research firm Forrester, told The Independent.