Too little, too late: EU chief scorns Android's antitrust avoidance

Google tried to placate the European Union with a package of concessions, but failed to avoid a $5 billion Android antitrust fine after its offer was rebuffed. The search giant was slapped with the biggest penalty in antitrust history last week, after the EU deemed it guilty of monopolizing the smartphone ecosystem.

Android, so the European Union Competition Commission decided, had been used by Google as a "vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine" in three key ways. First, it demands that Android device-makers include the Google Search app and Google Chrome if they want to also preinstall the Google Play Store. That, the EU argues, reduces the likelihood that Android device users will bother trying third-party alternatives for search or browsing.

Second, Google's payments to device manufacturers and carriers to exclusively commit to installing Google Search was also declared anti-competitive. Rivals, the EU suggested, couldn't afford to compete with Google's hefty wallet. Finally, Google's refusal to allow forked versions of Android to access its propriety apps – including the Play Store – was deemed unacceptable.

None of the three factors came as much of a surprise, given the EU had first given Google its statement of objections back in 2016. In fact, European Union Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager revealed in an interview with Bloomberg, that's when Google should've started making apologetic overtures. Instead, it waited.

As Vestager sees it, Google should have followed the usual procedure and made efforts to "reach out immediately after" that statement of objections – effectively the EU's initial complaint – is received. Rather than do that, however, Google only began making tentative attempts in mid-2017. That, it's reported, came after the EU fined the company $2.8 billion in a separate shopping services case.

Exactly when Google's olive branch was first extended is unclear: discussions have variously been pegged as early as August 2017 or as late as November that year, when Google's Sundar Pichai met with Vestager. The letter Google finally sent to the EU, meanwhile, is said to have been fairly high-level. Rather than outline specific remedies, it supposedly focused on communicating the company's willingness to change its behaviors to placate the European regulators.

Instead of demonstrating an openness to flexibility, however, it seems the letter was taken as too vague, if it was viewed seriously at all. Speaking this week, Vestager characterized Google as doing effectively nothing when it came to reaching out. "That didn't happen in this case and then of course it takes the route that it has now taken," the Commissioner said, referring to the hefty fine.

It's proved politically charged, too. President Trump has slammed the EU for the fine, describing Google as "one of our great companies" and threatening that Europe's will soon no longer be able to "take advantage" of the US.

Google, meanwhile, plans to appeal the EU's antitrust decision, though Pichai has also said the company is willing to modify its policies if necessary. "We've always agreed that with size comes responsibility," he wrote. "A healthy, thriving Android ecosystem is in everyone's interest, and we've shown we're willing to make changes."