Friday, April 15, 2011

Korean search engines Naver and Daum file antitrust complaint over restrictions Google imposes on Android device makers

According to Dow Jones Newswires, NHN Corp. -- the owner of Naver, the market-leading Korean search engine by revenue -- and Daum Communications Corp. (the number two) lodged an antitrust complaint today with South Korea's Fair Trade Commission (FTC) against Google. The two complainants believe Google violates South Korean competition rules by "restricting local mobile service providers and Android smartphone manufacturers from pre-loading some mobile search portals, including the two Korean search portals, on smartphones."

According to the Dow Jones report, a Google spokesperson claimed that "Android is an open platform and carrier partners are free to decide which applications and services to include on their Android phones." But in my opinion it's perfectly clear that Android is not open, and Google's partners are not free to choose applications and services. Today's antitrust complaint in Korea is just the latest indication of many for Android's non-openness. Here are the most important examples (in no particular order):

  • I previously reported on Skyhook's two lawsuits against Google. One of them is about Google's restrictive practices. When Motorola and Samsung wanted to ship Skyhook's location-positioning software with their Android devices, Google explained to them that its Android licensing rules don't allow them to do that. Xconomy recently interviewed Skyhook's CEO. The Dow Jones report on today's Korean antitrust complaint also mentions the Skyhook case.

  • In its litigation with Google, Oracle told the court about how Google limits the choice of Android device makers.

  • The Register's Cade Metz discovered an interesting article in the IEEE's Computing Now magazine, in which two Google engineering directors affirmatively say that Android and Chrome "are both open and closed depending on business needs at any given time."

  • Google decided not to publish the source code of Android version 3.0, codenamed Honeycomb, for the time being. Only select device makers are allowed to ship Honeycomb-based products now.

  • Yesterday Google held its quarterly earnings call, and as ZDNet's Larry Dignan reports, Google CFO Patrick Pichette told investors that "everybody that uses Chrome is a guaranteed locked-in user for [Google's search engine and other services]." That's also the case with Android. It's practically impossible for the average user to set another default search engine than Google on an Android-based device. Interestingly, Google always argues in antitrust contexts that its competition is just one click away. That claim is debatable for various reasons, but with Android and Chrome there can't even be a debate: it's just wrong in those contexts.

I don't know much about the South Korean market and nothing about South Korean competition law. Therefore I can't say whether today's antitrust complaint is likely to succeed. Also, the Korea Herald reported on this initiative two days ago (when the exact timing of the complaint was not yet known) and mentions that NHN (Naver) and Daum have both been accused by smaller local competitors of engaging in anticompetitive practices.

That said, there can be no doubt that Google controls Android in a way that runs counter to its claims of openness, and that Google's business model is all about lock-in, just like the business models of other dominant companies. It would be naïve to believe otherwise.

In terms of pursuing a lock-in, they aren't better than others. There are two respects in which Google's pursuit of a monopoly is different from that of comparable companies:

  • Google disregards other companies' intellectual property rights to an unprecedented extent. This week, the 40th Android-related patent infringement suit was filed (one of the Walker Digital suits accuses Android among other platforms) in only about 14 months.

  • Google exploits open source software like no other company ever did in pursuit of a lock-in. There are some hypocrites whose core businesses are also about lock-in but they use open source as a pretext in political debates, such as for demanding royalty-free access to intellectual property. Their core businesses are, however, based on proprietary technologies, while Google develops "open source" software for the purpose of locking users in.

This week a data privacy blogger asked whether Google is "cruising towards a legal meltdown." That metaphor sounds dramatic, but there's no doubt that Google faces a number of problems in connection with intellectual property rights, competition rules, and data privacy.

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