Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Google's warning against unintended consequences of Indian antitrust enforcement is not entirely baseless, but third-party app stores and direct installs are needed--and not unprecedented remedies

Unfortunately, some (if not all) documents filed with India's National Competition Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) are not publicly accessible, which is why a Reuters report on a new Google filing is the only source I have at this point on Google's efforts to halt the enforcement of an October 2022 decision by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) (shortly after which another Google antitrust decision by the CCI--with a focus on Android app distribution--came down).

Google told the NCLAT that "[t]remendous advancement in growth of an ecosystem of device manufacturers, app developers and users is at the verge of coming to a halt because of the remedial directions," and that "[n]o other jurisdiction has ever asked for such far-reaching changes based on similar conduct."

Given that the ruling in question--even though (again) we're just talking about the first one of two CCI Google decisions--comes with ten remedial orders, it wouldn't be fair to describe Google's claims as purely alarmist without taking a closer look at each item in terms of whether its enforcement should be stayed pending the appeal:

  • The first six remedial orders would topple Android's entire revenue model (Google is so far not selling Android to device makers, but monetizing it through services) and broadly eliminate Google's ability to limit fragmentation (inconsistencies between different Android devices, which I can say from my experience as an app maker is an issue to take seriously without allowing Google to overuse it to the extent where it becomes a pretext). That set of remedies goes beyond the European Commission's Google Android ruling, which was affirmed by an EU court last year.

    Google's allegation that the CCI copied parts of the European Commission's decision is, at best, ironic. No company has stretched the envelope of "fair use" of copyrighted materials like Google (be it in the Google Books or the Android/Java API context). Google's search engine results pages copy parts of other websites, too. The CCI ruling has a lot of original elements (otherwise Google couldn't now claim that the scope of the remedies is unprecedented), including some great wordings. What I can't form a definitive opinion on for lack of access to the record is whether Google is right that the CCI adopted DG COMP's conclusions without having enough evidence in its own case file, but I doubt it, given the decision's references to testimony, particularly evidence provided by Indian companies. If the CCI concluded that its own evidence weighed in favor of adopting similar conclusions as the EC, then that's legit.

    As a Google Pixel purchaser, I have paid Google directly for using Android, but I've also purchased devices from companies like Samsung and (while Google was allowed to grant them an Android license) Huawei. I think it would be fair if each Android devices, regardless of who makes it, came with a fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory royalty that would go to Google. Without taking a definitive position on the amount, I obviously don't mean a fee in the single digits (in U.S. dollars). By all means, Google should be able to profitably invest in the further development of Android, and I really like Google's innovative capacity and Android's product philosophy.

    Google mischaracterizes the ramifications of the remedial orders: Android development wouldn't have to grind to a halt because Google could react to the new regulatory framework. However, I don't think it's reasonable to require Google to reinvent and fundamentally change its Android business model (which is absolutely doable, but not totally disruption-free) while the underlying decision is under review by a court of law. When additionally considering the risks from potentially unfettered Android fragmentation through so-called "forks" in the Indian market, it's even more important that Google win a stay of the first six remedial orders--and at the end of the appeal, at least the anti-fragmentation part should potentially be tailored to a greater extent.

  • The second group of remedial orders (#7 and #8) give Android users the right to deinstall any preinstalled apps, and to select a different default search engine (and to be able to do so easily and conveniently). Those basic user rights are neither overreaching nor unprecedented: in fact, it shouldn't even have taken the CCI order to get there. So Google should not win a stay or reversal with respect to those rights. It is possible that many Indian users will then use local competitor apps and search services to a greater extent, and that may in the long run require Google to look to other revenue sources (particularly license fees from device makers), but I don't see a doomsday scenario: it would be a slow and smooth transition.

  • Finally, the third group of remedies addresses the rights of app developers (while also being beneficial to consumers, of course): third-party app stores and a level playing field for direct installs (somewhat pejoratively called "sideloading"). Those measures are absolutely needed. Chances are that Google will charge app developers anyway, and that's an issue that would have to be addressed separately, especially within the framework of the second CCI Google decision. What Google is really afraid of here is that India may become a test market that proves how well open app markets work--at a time when the European Union is working on the implementation of its Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the UK is about to start the legislative process on a similar measure that will give the Competition & Market Authority's (CMA) Digital Markets Unit (DMU) an additional tool to ensure competition in digital markets.

I support Google with respect to a potential stay of six of the ten remedial orders, but not on the remaining four items. And I believe Google should actually embrace any opportunity to make Android more open, which is the only way it can turn around Android's decline in the U.S. market (which obviously has some rather different characteristics from the Indian market).