Thursday, 11 March 2021 12:33

ACCC investigates mobile search and browser choice


The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has published an issues paper on the impact of default settings for search engines and browsers on mobile devices, and is seeking submissions from consumers and the industry.

The ACCC's Digital Platform Services Inquiry – September 2021 Report on market dynamics and consumer choice screens in search services and web browsers issues paper sets out the issues and invites input on:

• The impact of pre-installation and default settings on consumer choice and competition particularly in relation to online search and browsers;

• Trends in digital ecosystems and supplier behaviour in search services, browsers and operating systems that may impact the supply of search and browsers to Australian consumers;

• The extent to which existing consumer harm can arise from the design of default arrangements;

• The effectiveness of Google's choice screen roll out in Europe and whether it is fit for purpose within Australia; and

• 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 ACCC says it will use these submissions to "inform an upcoming report on the impact of default settings and pre-installation of search services and web browsers on consumer choice and competition."

"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.

Estimates of market share vary, but iOS and Android devices account for around 99% of the Australian market, so the also-rans are irrelevant to this discussion.

All iOS devices ship with Apple's Safari browser, and almost all Android devices have Google Chrome preinstalled. And both of those browsers default to Google for searching.

Furthermore, one of the most obvious alternatives to Safari and Chrome is Firefox, but Google reportedly pays Mozilla (the non-profit organisation behind Firefox) more than $US400 million a year to be the default search engine in the open-source browser.

In addition, the Microsoft Edge browser defaults to Microsoft Bing for searches.

"We would like to hear from consumers and businesses about the impact of the pre-installation of services and default settings on devices on their use of these services. We're also 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, can affect how consumers use these services," Sims added.

Submissions will be received until 15 April 2021.

The ACCC is also looking at the European roll out of choice screens for search services on Android devices, and examine what measures other than choice screens could encourage competition and improve consumer choice for search services and web browsers in Australia.

Google has agreed to add a choice screen to Android in Europe. The choice screen will appear during initial device setup and will feature multiple search providers, including Google. However, search providers are required to bid to feature on the choice screen.

The ACCC has already recommended that Google should provide a similar choice screen in Australia, but will report to the Federal Treasurer on the European rollout.

In a related matter, the ACCC's report on app marketplaces is due to be delivered by 31 March 2021.

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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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