Google manipulates browser extensions to stifle competition, says DuckDuckGo CEO

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Google is already facing growing legal challenges from regulators around the world who accuse the tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly on its digital search and advertising business.

But now one of its biggest rivals claims the titan is abusing browser extensions to promote its products and stifle its competition, adding a new wrinkle to the high-stakes antitrust debate and the momentum of calls for a new one. regulations.

DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company offers a competing search engine that touts its privacy protections, said in an interview on Tuesday that Google was deploying manipulative design features, known as “patterns. dark ”, to encourage users to abandon competing products.

According to DuckDuckGo, Google has used deceptive notifications for years to trick users into turning off competitors’ browser extensions and to dissuade them from switching their default search engines to its web browser, Chrome. But Weinberg said Google in August 2020 changed the prompts to more blatantly keep users away from jumping ship.

The changes include requiring users to respond if they prefer to “Return to Google Search” after adding the DuckDuckGo extension and showing users a larger, highlighted button when given the option to “Return” back ”or not.

Weinberg said the adjustments – though subtle – had a major impact.

Since Google implemented the changes, DuckDuckGo said it has seen a significant drop – 10% – in the number of new users it has been able to keep on its services on Chrome. DuckDuckGo said this resulted in hundreds of thousands of new users being lost. (Chrome is by far the most popular desktop browser in the world.)

This is the first time the company has spoken publicly about the impact of the practice on its business, including what it says are millions in potential revenue losses since Google changed its prompts in 2020.

“For search engines like us who are actively trying to empower consumers to change, [or] choosing an alternative, they make it unreasonably complicated and confusing for consumers, ”Weinberg said of Google.

Google spokesperson Julie Tarallo McAlister said in a statement that Chrome users “can directly change their default search settings at any time,” but they often complain “when they download an extension. which changes these parameters in an unexpected way without their knowledge ”.

She added, “This issue has been well documented for a long time and that is why we have long had clear disclosure requirements for extensions and shown users a notification if an extension tries to change their search settings – as a way to confirm their intention. “

McAlister said the notification appears “regardless of which search provider the user chooses” and that some other browsers have “similar policies.”

Weinberg said he hoped that talking about the tactics would bolster calls for bipartisan antitrust legislation being considered on Capitol Hill to prohibit major platforms from prioritizing their own products and putting rivals at a disadvantage.

The proposals are just a few of many bills targeting what U.S. lawmakers see as anti-competitive abuse by companies like Google. But the bills, led by Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., And Representative David Cicillin, DR.I., have broad support from Democrats and Republicans, making them one of the most threatening to the giants of Silicon Valley. They are seen as barometers for the broader antitrust push.

Weinberg said the previously unreported drop in user retention through their extension on Chrome is one of the most “direct” evidence they’ve seen of how Google’s practices have been. harmed their business.

“I think it really helps to make things concrete and show some very specific examples of where things are happening,” he said in a 30-minute video interview.

It’s a discovery that could also serve as fodder for state and federal authorities as they pursue their antitrust lawsuits against the tech giant.

The Justice Department filed a gargantuan lawsuit in October 2020 alleging that Google violated several federal antitrust laws through its search practices. Dozens of state attorneys general in December of that year followed suit with a separate antitrust complaint against the tech giant. Google disputed claims it stifles competition and argued the lawsuits were flawed.

Weinberg said the company has informed Washington policymakers and regulators of its concerns about Google’s search engine practices, including those that drive antitrust efforts in Congress. “A lot of people have contacted us over time and we are responsive,” he said.

He added: “We have been in contact with the DOJ and we are trying to help them and States for that matter in their case to provide them with any information that would be useful.”

But these legal battles are set to sprawl out over several years, which Weinberg says makes the need for Congress to act and pass new laws even more urgent.

“We definitely need a boost on real legislation,” he said.

Google is also waging antitrust battles overseas, including in the European Union, where in November it lost a major appeal to overturn a landmark antitrust case. The bloc is also putting forward two major proposals, the Digital Services Law and the Digital Markets Law, which aim to curb the alleged abuse of giant tech platforms. But that’s not all DuckDuckGo has its eyes on.

“The other two countries we are focusing on are Australia and [United Kingdom]”Weinberg said.

These are just two other regions where Google and other tech giants are now facing increased efforts to overhaul regulations for their industry.


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