Google is already facing mounting legal challenges from regulators globally who accuse the tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising businesses. REUTERS/David W Cerny
Google is already facing mounting legal challenges from regulators globally who accuse the tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising businesses. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Google is manipulating browser extensions to stifle competitors, DuckDuckGo CEO says

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jan 11, 2022

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Google is already facing mounting legal challenges from regulators globally who accuse the tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising businesses.

But now one of its most prominent rivals is alleging that the titan is abusing browser extensions to favor its products and stifle competitors, adding a new wrinkle to the high-stakes antitrust debate and momentum to calls for new regulation.

DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company offers a competing search engine that touts its privacy protections, said during an interview Tuesday that Google is deploying manipulative design features, known as "dark patterns," to trick users into abandoning rival products.

According to DuckDuckGo, Google for years has used misleading notifications to lure users into disabling its rival's browser extensions and to discourage them from switching their default search engines on its web browser, Chrome. But Weinberg said Google in August 2020 tweaked the prompts to more blatantly nudge users away from jumping ship.

The changes include requiring users to answer whether they would rather "Change back to Google search" after adding the DuckDuckGo extension and showing users a larger, highlighted button when giving them the option to "Change it back" or not.

Weinberg said the tweaks - although subtle - have had a major impact.

Since Google implemented the changes, DuckDuckGo said it has seen a significant drop - 10 percent - in how many new users it has been able to retain on its services on Chrome. DuckDuckGo said that has translated to hundreds of thousands of new users lost. (Chrome is the world's most prevalent desktop browser by a wide margin.)

It's the first time the company is publicly speaking out about how the practice has impacted its business, including what it says are millions in potential lost revenue since Google changed its prompts in 2020.

"For search engines like us that are trying to actively allow consumers to switch, [or] choose an alternative, they're making it unreasonably complicated to do so and confusing consumers," Weinberg said of Google.

Google spokeswoman 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 that unexpectedly changes these settings without their knowledge."

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

McAlister said the notification appears "regardless of the user's chosen search provider," and that some other browsers have "similar policies."

Weinberg said he hopes by speaking out about the tactic it will strengthen calls for bipartisan antitrust legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill to ban major platforms from prioritizing their own products and disadvantaging rivals.

The proposals are just some of the numerous bills targeting what U.S. lawmakers say are anti-competitive abuses by companies like Google. But the bills, spearheaded by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., boast broad backing from Democrats and Republicans, making them among the most threatening for Silicon Valley giants. They're seen as bellwethers for the larger antitrust push.

Weinberg said the drop in user retention via their extension on Chrome, which was previously unreported, is one of the most "direct" pieces of evidence they have seen about how Google's practices have harmed their business.

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

It's a finding that could also serve as fodder for state and federal enforcers as they press ahead with their antitrust lawsuits against the tech behemoth.

The Justice Department in October 2020 filed a gargantuan lawsuit 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 has disputed allegations it stifles competition and argued the lawsuits are flawed.

Weinberg said the company has briefed policymakers in Washington and regulators about its concerns over Google's search engine practices, including those leading antitrust efforts in Congress. "A lot of people have reached out to us over time, and we are responsive," he said.

He added, "We've been in touch with the DOJ and we're trying to help them, and the states for that matter, in their case to provide them with any information that would be helpful."

But those legal bouts are poised to drag out over several years, which Weinberg said makes the need for Congress to act and pass new laws even more pressing.

"We definitely need momentum on real legislation," he said.

Google is fighting antitrust battles overseas, too, including in the European Union, where in November it lost a major appeal to overturn a landmark antitrust case. The bloc is also advancing two major proposals, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, that aim to curtail alleged abuses by giant tech platforms. But that's not all DuckDuckGo has its eyes on.

"The two other countries that we're focused on is Australia and the [United Kingdom]," Weinberg said.

Those are just two more regions where Google and other tech giants are now facing surging efforts to overhaul regulation of their sector.

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