Regulators throughout the world are accusing Google of establishing an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising businesses, and the internet giant is already facing escalating legal challenges.
But now, one of the titan’s most powerful competitors claims that the company is misusing browser extensions to favor its products and restrict competitors, bringing a new wrinkle to the high-stakes antitrust issue and fueling calls for further regulation.
During an interview with myself and Gerrit De Vynck on Tuesday, DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company offers a competing search engine that touts its privacy protections, said that Google is using manipulative design features known as “dark patterns” to trick users into abandoning rival products.
According to DuckDuckGo, Google has been using deceptive warnings for years to trick users into deleting its competitors’ browser extensions and preventing them from changing their preferred search engines on Chrome. However, according to Weinberg, Google modified the prompts in August 2020 to more brazenly steer consumers away from abandoning ship.
Users will be asked whether they want to “Change back to Google search” after installing the DuckDuckGo extension, and when given the choice to “Change it back,” a larger, highlighted button will be displayed.
Since Google made the adjustments, DuckDuckGo has witnessed a significant decline — 10% — in the number of new users it has been able to keep on its Chrome services. According to DuckDuckGo, this has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of new users. (Chrome is by far the most used desktop browser on the planet.
It’s the first time the company has spoken out publicly about how the practice has damaged its business, including millions in potential income missed since Google altered its prompts in 2020, according to the company.
“For search engines like us that are actively attempting to allow consumers to switch, [or] choose an alternative, they’re making it excessively difficult and confusing consumers,” Weinberg said of Google.
Chrome users “may directly alter their default search settings at any time,” according to Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister, but they frequently complain “when they download an extension that abruptly changes these settings without their knowledge.”
“This issue has long been well-documented, which is why we’ve had explicit disclosure rules for extensions and showed users a message if any extension tries to change their search settings — as a means to confirm their purpose,” she continued.
The message appears “independent of the user’s preferred search provider,” according to McAlister, and some other browsers have “identical practices.”
Weinberg hopes that by coming out about the technique, he may boost efforts for bipartisan antitrust legislation on Capitol Hill that would prohibit large platforms from promoting their own products at the expense of competitors.
The legislation are just a few of many aimed against what politicians in the United States believe are anti-competitive practices by businesses like Google. However, the legislation, backed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), have bipartisan support, making them among the most dangerous for Silicon Valley behemoths. They’re viewed as harbingers of the wider antitrust campaign.
The decline in customer retention via their Chrome extension, which was previously undisclosed, is one of the most “direct” pieces of data Weinberg has seen concerning how Google’s actions have hurt his company, according to Weinberg.
In October 2020, the Justice Department filed a massive lawsuit charging that Google’s search operations violated multiple federal antitrust laws. In December of that year, a separate antitrust action against the computer behemoth was filed by dozens of state attorneys general. Google has denied that it stifles competition and has maintained that the lawsuits are faulty.
Weinberg said the company has briefed lawmakers and authorities in Washington, including those driving antitrust efforts in Congress, about its worries about Google’s search engine tactics. “We’ve had a number of folks reach out to us over time, and we’ve been receptive,” he said.