In brief: Google is facing serious antitrust scrutiny around the world, leading many to compare it to Microsoft in the 1990s. The latest reports indicate that the company may have been collecting data on rival Android apps to develop competitors.
The success of Android can be attributed not only to the breadth of hardware options but also to the sheer number of apps that have been developed for it, including those made by Google -- the developer behind the popular mobile operating system.
Naturally, the company has access to general usage information from Android devices that it uses to guide the development of various features and measure the impact of any changes made to the overall experience. However, a new report from The Information reveals that Google may collect more data than you'd imagine through an internal program, and not necessarily for the right reasons.
The program -- dubbed "Android Lockbox" -- allows the company to gather information on non-Google apps and people's usage patterns for those apps. For instance, the company looks at how many times users open a specific app every day and the average time spent using it.
The report claims there's a dedicated team called "Magic Eye" that analyzes the data and uses it to brief executives on how much engagement third-party services receive, potentially informing decisions about acquisitions or developing rival services under the Google umbrella.
Sources told The Information that this data has been used to monitor rivals to Google's services such as YouTube and Gmail, as well as fast-growing mobile apps like TikTok.
YouTube recently rolled out an experimental feature in India called Shorts, which is designed to sway people away from TikTok. It would be interesting to know what made Google decide it was not worth developing into a separate app. Google says it's not a secret that it has access to usage data for rival apps and explained that it uses that to improve battery life, tune the Play Store search algorithm, and to power Digital Wellbeing features on Android.
The company further noted that this is done through the public Android App Usage Data API, which means other developers have the same level of access to relevant information about app usage -- provided that the user allowed this during the initial Android setup or in Settings > Google > More > Usage & Diagnostics.
The report is coming out just as Google CEO Sundar Pichai along with the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are expected to testify before Congress on the subject of competition in the digital marketplace.
Both the DOJ and 50 state attorneys general have launched antitrust investigations into Google's business practices, from acquisitions like DoubleClick, Android, AdMob, and YouTube to how its search algorithm treats rival apps and services.