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What just happened? As a result of a record fine levied at Google by the European Commission, the company is giving other search engines get a chance to govern search functionality on new Android devices. The fine print: they'll have to fight others for it, and pay Google every time someone switches to their service.
Starting next year, Google will offer Android users in the European Union a way to choose from a list of search providers. Once an option is selected during setup from a choice screen, it will become the default search provider across the operating system and apps like Chrome. You'll also be able to remove the Google search widget, and the company says that configuration will be remembered even after restoring a device.
Worth noting is that search engines will have to go through a "first-price sealed bid auction," with the three winners taking the empty slots alongside Google in the choice screen and the list will be randomly ordered. Then they'll have to pay the search giant every time their service is chosen.
The auction will be country-specific, but Google hasn't said what the minimum bid threshold is, and will be keeping the total number of bidders a secret. If there are fewer than three services that meet the requirement, the company will fill the available slots with a randomly selected search provider from a pool that will be confirmed for every country in the EU by October 31.
If this looks like a pay-to-play to you, you're not alone. CEO of Quant, Eric Leandri, told Bloomberg that his company is certainly interested in taking part to the auction, but also criticized the specifics of the process. He noted that Google's idea to "ask for cash just for showing a proposal of alternatives" is yet another example of the very abuse that resulted in the $5 billion fine from the EU last year.
Others like DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg are calling upon regulators to work with Google and other search providers and change the "ballot box" system to something that's fair for everyone who wants to be on the choice screen.
As you might remember, Microsoft was in a similar position a decade ago, but went to solve things in a different way. Having been accused by EU regulators that it was using its dominance in the operating systems market as a way to push its Internet Explorer web browser, the Redmond giant agreed to allow Windows users to choose from several alternatives during setup.
Ironically enough, Google was among the companies that filed the complaint and, like Mozilla and others, didn't have to pay Microsoft anything to be on the choice screen or if a user chose Chrome as the new default browser.
Google argues it's all fair and square. The company notes in the FAQ that "an auction is a fair and objective method to determine which search providers are included in the choice screen. It allows search providers to decide what value they place on appearing in the choice screen and to bid accordingly."
But there are holes in Google's argument. There is no guarantee that a user won't switch back to Google after the initial setup. Also search providers have to pay to surface as an option and the choice screen won't appear on devices like Samsung's Galaxy line, which come with Microsoft's Bing pre-installed.