The European Commission on Wednesday leveled antitrust charges against Google’s Android operating system, alleging the company devised a web of contracts and secret payments that hampered innovation in the Internet economy.
The move injects fresh blood into a six-year battle between European regulations and the search giant, which has drawn accusations of protectionism from across the Atlantic.
Once again Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, is at the forefront of Europe’s efforts to rein in the tech titans, and in the cross hairs of U.S. critics who see Google in a more benign light.
“We found that Google pursues an overall strategy on mobile devices to protect and expand its dominant position in Internet search,” she said.
In response, Kent Walker, the general counsel of Google parent company Alphabet, pointed to the success of apps like Spotify, WhatsApp or Instagram as evidence consumers are able to download apps they liked.
He argued it was normal that, given Google provided Android for free, it sought to generate revenue through apps and other services.
Google has 12 weeks to submit a formal response to antitrust enforcers.
Vestager’s move constitutes a major threat to Google’s shift to the mobile economy. This case also builds on the charges leveled at the firm’s search business last year.
Her team is still looking into Google’s advertising business as well as possible copyright abuses, which could result in more charges.
“The Commission’s investigation into Google’s conduct has been complicated by the fact that Google is acting in so many different markets: shopping, mobile operating systems, and so on,” said Alec Burnside, antitrust lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, an adviser to a number of complainants.
Yet he said Wednesday’s announcement suggested the Commission had found a common thread: “All of Google’s conduct serves to reinforce its core dominance in general search — from which it makes most of its money.”
At the heart of the allegations is Google Play, the company’s app store, which houses 1.6 million apps — more than Apple’s store and four-times more than Amazon’s.
Manufacturers that want to install Google Play must install a whole suite of Google apps, including the Chrome Internet browser, and put Google’s search bar on the Android homepage.
The Commission also alleged Google, whose Android ran on 80 percent of smartphones shipped last year, uses a web of secret payments and exclusive clauses to block equipment manufacturers and mobile operators from installing other search engines on phones.
Yet the Commission’s concerns over Android stretch wider.
“Today’s statement of objections finds that, as a result of Google’s behavior, rival search engines, mobile operating systems and web browsers have not been able to compete on their merits, but have rather been artificially excluded from certain business opportunities,” said Vestager.
Yet some indicated support for Google’s position.
“The charges are curious given the ease at which consumers can easily download competing apps and customize their phones,” said James Waterworth, vice president at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, of which Google is a member.
But there were more vocal Google critics Wednesday, including the complainants, who first raised their voices in 2013.
Paulo Trezentos, founder and chief executive of Aptoide, a Portuguese app store with 50 employees, said, “We feel that innovation in Europe could be much quicker if there are no constraints in competition in the services Google provides. We don’t think it is too late.”
This article has been updated to add additional context and quotes.