Google manipulates browser extensions to stifle competitors, says DuckDuckGo CEO

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Google is already facing mounting legal challenges from regulators around the world 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 alleges the titan misuses browser extensions to favor its products and stifle rivals, 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 in an interview Tuesday that Google is rolling out manipulative design features, known as “templates.” dark”, to induce users to abandon competing products.

According to DuckDuckGo, Google has for years used deceptive notifications to trick users into disabling its rival’s browser extensions and to discourage them from changing their default search engines on its web browser, Chrome. But Weinberg said Google in August 2020 changed the prompts to more blatantly steer users away from the ship.

Changes include requiring users to answer if they’d rather “go back to Google search” after adding the DuckDuckGo extension and showing users a bigger, highlighted button when giving them the option to “go back Google Search” or not.

Weinberg said the tweaks — albeit subtle — had a major impact.

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

It’s the first time the company has spoken publicly about the impact the practice has had on its business, including what it says is millions in lost potential revenue since Google changed its prompts in 2020.

“For search engines like us that are trying to actively enable consumers to change, [or] choose an alternative, they unreasonably complicate the task and confuse consumers, Weinberg said of Google.

Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister said in a statement that Chrome users “can change their default search settings directly at any time,” but they often complain “when they download an extension that changes these parameters unexpectedly 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 confirm their intention.

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

Weinberg said he hopes talking about the tactic will bolster calls for bipartisan antitrust legislation being considered on Capitol Hill to prohibit major platforms from prioritizing their own products and disadvantaging their rivals.

The proposals are just a few of many bills targeting what U.S. lawmakers say are anti-competitive abuses by companies like Google. But the bills, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. David Cicilline, DR.I., have broad support from Democrats and Republicans alike, making it one of the most threatening for the giants of Silicon Valley. They are seen as indicators of the biggest antitrust push.

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

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

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

In October 2020, the Department of Justice 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 disputed claims that it stifles competition and argued that the lawsuits were flawed.

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

But those legal battles are set to drag on for years, which Weinberg says makes the need for Congress to act and pass new laws even more pressing.

“We really need momentum for real legislation,” he said.

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

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

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

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