Antitrust lawsuit claims Google illegally tried to control distribution of Android apps
On July 7, a coalition of 36 US states, along with Washington DC, filed an antitrust complaint against Google. The lawsuit accuses the company of abusing its control over the Play Store – the dominant app store for Android devices – to force developers to pay a 30% commission on sales and block competing stores.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the recent Epic vs. Apple trial focused on similar issues with the App Store on Apple’s iOS and iPadOS devices. However, it’s worth noting that Epic sued Google at the same time, but Apple’s lawsuit largely overshadowed the company’s case against Google.
This state-level lawsuit is part of three other ongoing antitrust lawsuits against Google at the federal level in the United States, including an ongoing Justice Department case accusing Google of monopoly advertising practices by research.
Support for Google App Store fees
The App Store lawsuit appears to focus on two main issues. The first is Google’s App Store fees – the company takes a share of sales generated by developers using the Play Store to deliver apps to users. Like Apple, Google cuts app sales by 30%, but cuts that down to 15% for developers making less than $ 1 million from the Play Store.
Google recently extended the fee to cover more digital products purchased through the Play Store. The edge notes that the extension targets apps that previously avoided App Store fees.
However, as with Apple’s App Store, the problem isn’t so much that the fee is there (or 30%), but more that developers have no choice. Google designed Android and developed policies that push developers to use the Play Store and use Google’s in-app purchase system. In other words, Google, like Apple, is leveraging its control over Android and the Play Store to force developers to use a system that forces them to pay high fees.
Additionally, the fees give Google’s apps and services an edge over competing services that have to pay the fees.
Google accused of preventing viable competition in the Play Store
The second objective of the lawsuit is that Google would have engaged in anti-competitive practices to discourage developers from circumventing application fees or to prevent competing platforms from gaining ground. In a separate article, The edge described several charges in the lawsuit detailing the ways Google has worked to prevent competition on Android.
On the one hand, the lawsuit claims that Google has worked to prevent developers from bypassing the Play Store. This involved effectively paying developers to encourage them not to distribute apps outside of the Play Store while placing restrictions on how developers can distribute apps. Further, the lawsuit says these efforts came “as a direct result” of the distribution of Epic Games. Fortnite outside of the Play Store.
“For Google, the competition in the distribution of applications is a virus to be eliminated”, one reads within the framework of the lawsuit.
I already hear some of you angrily typing that “Android is an open platform,” but the lawsuit addresses that claim as well. While Android is technically more open than Apple’s iOS – it loads competing apps and app stores, but Apple doesn’t – the lawsuit claims openness is a facade and that the business practices of Google is preventing viable competitors.
Specifically, the lawsuit describes a variety of tactics used by Google to prevent Samsung’s Galaxy Store from becoming a viable competitor to the Play Store. One tactic was to use revenue-sharing deals with Android phone makers that “outright forbid” them from pre-installing competing stores. Google also made a “direct attempt to pay Samsung to abandon its relationships with the best developers and reduce competition through the Samsung Galaxy Store,” according to the lawsuit.
If that’s not enough for you, Epic made similar statements last year when it launched a lawsuit against Google. At the time, Epic accused Google of forcing OnePlus to drop a deal with Epic to preload a special. Fortnite launcher on his phones. Likewise, Google reportedly prevented LG from pre-installing the Epic Games app on its devices.
Despite Google’s claims, Android isn’t as open as you might think
I’ve seen several people post inane arguments before about how Google undermining the Galaxy Store is actually a good thing because the Galaxy Store is bad. These arguments completely miss the point. Whether or not you like a particular app store, Google shouldn’t engage in monopoly practices to undermine the competition. Additionally, it’s troubling that Google is taking advantage of Android’s perceived openness as a defense for how it treats competing Android developers and stores while actively working against them.
Speaking of defense, Google’s senior director of public policy, Wilson White, posted a blog post in response to the lawsuit. In the post, White called him “strange” who said “he chose to take legal action attacking a system that offers more openness and choice than the others.” White also called the Epic Games lawsuit “also without merit”.
However, Android is not as open as it looks. There’s an important distinction to be made here between Android and Google’s Android – the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is actually quite open by design.
Google’s Android, on the other hand, has an added layer of arguably critical software that’s not as open. This layer includes the Play Store, Google services such as Assistant, and Play services. All of these are an integral part of the typical Android experience, whether you’re using a Google Pixel device or a Samsung Galaxy device. Many apps just don’t work without them. Look at the phones Huawei released after the US ban prevented it from using Google’s software – several core apps were not performing well because they relied on Google services that are not part of Android.
So, yes, Android is technically open. If I wanted, I could install a third-party Android version on my smartphone, I could use third-party app stores, and I could install apps from places other than the Play Store. But doing it is complicated. There is a lot of effort and complexity involved, more than the average person likely has the time or patience to deal with.
The results of this trial could have significant impacts on the Android ecosystem. If states win, we could see a future where many viable app distribution platforms exist on Android devices. Users and developers may be able to choose where they obtain and distribute applications. However, if Google wins the deal, we could see Android further locked down as the company secures its grip on app distribution.
Source: The Verge, (2), Google