Earlier this year, Google dropped a long-standing instruction from its code of corporate conduct. Don’t be evil. Long considered the search giant’s unofficial motto, it disappeared sometime between April and May. On 18 July, however, Google was reminded of it. Not through some internal company memo. But in the form of a record $5 billion fine, courtesy European Union (EU) regulators.
The EU’s Competition Commission, a watchdog body tasked with looking into antitrust allegations against companies, took action against Google for abusing the dominance of its Android operating system to push usage of its search engine. Currently, over 80% of all phones have various versions of Android installed on them.
The commission ordered Google to stop pressuring phone makers into pre-installing Google’s web browser Chrome and making Google the default search engine on their devices. It hit out at Google for offering payments in return for manufacturers exclusively pre-installing Search. Google was instructed to end restrictions that discouraged manufacturers from selling devices that ran unofficial versions of Android. This hurts Google’s advertising real estate, parked on our screens through the company’s apps and services that come pre-bundled on their platforms.
Google has long fought off antitrust issues around its dominance in the operating system, search and search advertising sectors in several countries, including India. To get a sense of why, just think about our online experience. You can’t log into Google Hangouts if you’re not logged into your Gmail. One platform can potentially lock you out of several apps at the same time. You might be in a righteous huff about Facebook playing fast and loose with your data, but how else are you going to find out what your friends are up to? WhatsApp? Checkmate.
These are uninhibited network effects—more users, more data, more dominance—in the flesh. Hard to avoid. And harder still to regulate.
Enter the Competition Commission of India (CCI).
Tucked away on two floors of the Hindustan Times building in central Delhi, this quiet, quasi-judicial government regulator plays a vital role. Like the EU’s Competition Commission, the CCI is a peer amongst the world’s top competition regulators. And the online market is their latest, and most complex playing field yet.
The feuds between tech companies—big and small—who compete for our attention, are fought through CCI’s long-winded, bureaucratic processes. While the immediate impact of their decisions—on how we transact and share things online—may not be apparent, the Commission holds the power to alter the future of competition in the online economy.
Or does it? “These online network markets are nuanced in the way they work. Big tech giants can exploit inherent loopholes in the implementation of the law. The truth is that they’re getting away with it,” says a lawyer who formerly appeared before the CCI as a counsel for a major app taxi service.