In April 2015 the European Commission (EC) opened a formal investigation into the behaviour of Google in the market for smartphones and tablets. On the 20th April Google was sent a preliminary judgment (referred to formally as a Statement of Objections) in which it was accused of abusing its dominant market position. The European Commissioner argued that the case was similar to the famous and protracted investigation into the conduct of Microsoft.
In the early 2000s Microsoft had a dominant position in the market for desktop operating systems. It has been estimated that 97% of all computing devices at the time used Microsoft Windows. This market power attracted the attention of the EC who accused the company of using its dominance in the operating systems market to restrict competition in complementary markets for software such internet browsers and media players. This led to a complex legal battle between the two parties.
Windows is proprietory software and computer manufacturers have to pay Microsoft a licence fee to install it on their machines. Before the rulings by the EC, Microsoft could make a licence for Windows conditional on other Microsoft software such as Internet Explorer and Media Player being pre-installed. This is known as bundling and in this case the EC came to the conclusion that it restricted competition. The European Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager recently stated that
“If Microsoft’s media player was already there when you bought a PC, it would be hard to persuade people to even try an alternative, so innovators would be at a big disadvantage”
Microsoft lost most of its competition battles with the EC and had to pay a total of €2.2 billion in various fines. It was also forced to change its conduct. For example, the EC instructed Microsoft to provide its users with a choice of internet browsers.
The marketplace for operating systems has gone through some significant changes since the early 2000s. By 2016 Microsoft’s market share had fallen to 26 per cent. One of the major reasons for this decline has been the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets.
Google’s Android operating system dominates the mobile market with a market share of over 80 per cent. However, the economics of the Android operating system are very different from those of Windows. Unlike Windows, Android is an example of ‘open-source software’. This means that, rather than having to obtain a licence fee, mobile handset or tablet manufacturers can freely install Android on their devices and are not obliged to pre-install other Google software – both Amazon and Nokia have done this. ,
Another major difference is that it is relatively straightforward for rival firms to develop software that can run on Android. Microsoft was accused of making it very difficult for rival software companies to develop products that would run smoothly on the Windows operating system.
It would appear far easier for rival firms to compete with Google than it ever was with Microsoft when it had a dominant market position. It might therefore seem surprising that the EC has accused Google of abusing its dominant market position.
Rather than any restrictions surrounding the licencing conditions for the operating system the EC’s objections to Google’s behaviour focus on its licencing conditions for other proprietary software products it provides. In particular, the EC has focused on the Google Play Store.
The pre-installation of the Google Play Store is seen as vital to the commercial success of any Android phone. Google Play Store was launched in 2012 and brought three previously separate services together – Android Market, Google Music and Google eBookstore. It is the official app store for all users of a device with an Android operating system. It has been argued that a mobile phone store would not stock an Android phone unless it had Google Play Store pre-installed because it is so highly valued by customers.
Therefore it is vital for Android smartphone and tablet manufacturers to obtain a licence for the Play Store. The conditions for obtaining a licence are outlined in the Mobile Application Distribution Agreement. This specifies that a number of other Google apps must also be pre-installed on the device in order for a licence to be granted for the Play Store. These apps include Gmail, Google Chrome, Google Drive, Google Hangouts, Google Maps, Google Search and YouTube. The manufacturer is free to install any other non-google apps.
The EC has specifically objected to the condition that Google Search has to be installed and set as the default search engine. It is concerned that this that will make it very difficult for other search services to compete with Google because (1) manufacturers will have limited incentives to pre-install any competing search engines and (2) consumers will have less incentive to download competing search engines.
The EC has also expressed concerns that the pre-installation of Google Chrome as the mobile browser will also have a negative impact on competition and innovation in this market.
Companies are given 12 weeks to respond after they have received a preliminary judgment. If they do not accept the objections, then the EC will take several months to come to a final ruling and suggest some appropriate remedies. In this case, the most likely remedy is the removal of the licence conditions for the Google Play Store. If Google appeals the ECs decision to the General Court of the EU, it could take years until a final judgment is made.
Murad Ahmed, the European Technology Correspondent at the Financial Times commented that
“One lesson Google might want to learn from Microsoft’s example is while it fights the EU watchdog it is not overtaken by a less distracted competitor.”
Europe v Google: how Android became a battleground The Guardian (20/4/16)
EU accuses Google of using Android to skew market against rivals The Guardian (20/4/16)
Google faces EU charge over Android ‘abuse of dominance’ BBC News (20/4/16)
Google hit with EU competition charges for ‘abusing’ dominant position with Android Independent (20/4/16)
Everything you need to know about Google and its EU battle The Telegraph (20/4/16)
- Draw a diagram to compare and contrast the price and quantity in a competitive market with a situation where a firm has market dominance. Clearly state any assumptions you have made in the analysis.
- What factors does the EC consider when judging if a firm has a dominant position in the market?
- This blog has focused on one aspect of Google’s behaviour/conduct that has raised concerns with the EC. What other elements of Google’s conduct has the European Commission objected to?
- Explain the difference between pure and mixed bundling.
- What impact does bundling have on consumer welfare?
With the new Premier League football season only a week away, TV companies are heavily advertising the matches they will be showing. Until recently, BSkyB, having seen off competition from Setanta and ESPN, appeared to have an untouchable position in this market. However, competition now appears to be intensifying.
BT entered the market in 2012 by paying £738m for the rights to screen 38 Premier League matches a season for 3 seasons, with Sky showing another 116 matches. BT is clearly heavily backing its sports coverage with an initial outlay of £1.5b and them continuing to sign up high profile presenters and ambassadors including former players and a current manager.
Furthermore, BT dealt Sky (and ITV) a hefty blow last year when it outbid them to win the rights to exclusively show European club competition matches from 2015. Sky responded by saying that:
We bid with a clear view of what the rights are worth to us. It seems BT chose to pay far in excess of our valuation
If true, this would illustrate the winner’s curse which can arise in auctions. However, John Petter, chief executive of BT Retail, said that the deal demonstrated that BT Sport was committed to establishing itself in this market and countered Sky’s suggestion that they had overpaid by saying:
They would say that, wouldn’t they? Secretly, I’d expect them to be kicking themselves and full of regrets this morning
Clearly important to BT’s strategy is bundling its sports coverage in for free with their broadband packages. This is not without controversy since, at the same time as spending vast amounts of money to setup its sports coverage, BT is receiving large government subsidies to improve rural broadband provision.
An important forthcoming ruling from the Competition Appeal Tribunal will have a significant effect on how competition between BT and Sky develops. In this case Sky is accused of abusing its dominant position by refusing to supply BT’s YouView service with its sports channels at a reasonable wholesale price and could now be forced to do so.
It will also be fascinating to see how BT Sport’s strategy develops over time. BT is unlikely to continue to provide all its coverage for free once it includes the European matches that it has won the rights to show at great expense. It will also be fascinating to see the extent to which it continues to have success in winning broadcasting rights in the future.
Competition will inevitably push up the amount that the Premier League raises in the next rights auction. Current predictions are that these will be sold for over £4bn, up from £3bn in the previous auction. This will increase the amount the Premier League clubs receive and is also likely to further push up player wages. It remains to be seen the extent to which this will benefit viewers, not to mention pubs wishing to show the games some of whom have in the past looked for alternative solutions because of the high prices they have to pay.
BT wins court battle forcing review of Sky wholesale pricing decision The Guardian, Mark Sweney (17/02/14)
BT Sport does little to lift BT TV homes informitv – connected vision (01/08/14)
BT Sport continues to invest in football line-up MediaWeek, Arif Durrani (29/07/14)
- What are the key characteristics of the market for sports broadcasting rights?
- What are the pros and cons for consumers of BT Sport’s emergence?
- How do you think Sky might respond to competition from BT Sport?
- How do you think BT Sport’s strategy might develop over time?
As part of its drive to reduce the number of ‘quangos’ (quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisations), the government has decided to merger the two main competition authorities: the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading. The aim is to streamline the investigation of mergers, restrictive practices and the abuse of monopoly power, thereby saving costs and reducing the time taken before a decision is made. At present an initial OFT investigation can take many months before a reference is then made to the Competition Commission, which then starts the process of investigation from the beginning again.
Business leaders have welcomed the announcement, seeing the merger as a means of simplifying and speeding up investigations. But will the proposal be more effective in preventing the abuse of market power and encouraging competition? The following articles look at some of the issues.
OFT merger to shake up competition regime in UK Belfast Telegraph (15/10/10)
Competition lawyers gear up for merger of OFT and Competition Commission Legal Week, Friederike Heine (14/10/10)
Labour’s antitrust system dismantled Financial Times, Michael Peel (13/10/10)
Watchdog merger that merits review Financial Times (14/10/10)
Merged competition agency divides opinion Financial Times, Michael Peel (14/10/10)
Office of Fair Trading and Competition Commission to merge Guardian, Julia Kollewe (14/10/10)
Concerns at merger of OFT and Competition Commission Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (15/10/10)
- What are the current roles and responsibilities of the OFT and the Competition Commission?
- What types of market abuse are the two agencies designed to reduce or prevent? What instruments do they have at their disposal for enforcing their findings?
- What are the arguments in favour of the merger of the two agencies?
- What are the dangers of the merger?
- How will consumer protection be provided under the new regime?
I hardly need to say that the title is no reflection on England’s World Cup performance – or lack thereof. Instead, it relates to the opportunity for more people to watch the Premier League, which I’m sure most of you’ll agree is good news!
In 2007, BT, Virgin, Top up TV and Setanta complained about Sky’s dominance within the pay-TV industry. We considered Sky’s dominance and the subsequent investigation by Ofcom in a posting in March: Is the sky falling in?. Ofcom ruled that Sky would have to reduce the price it charged to other broadcasters to show its premium sports channels.
In more recent developments, there has now been a deal signed between Sky and BT, which will allow BT Vision customers to view Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 2 from August 1st 2010 (just in time for the start of the new football season, for those that are interested!) There are still ongoing debates about how much BT will charge for these new channels and it will depend largely on the outcome of the Sky’s appeal against Ofcom’s decision about the prices Sky has set. Although this may be good news to BT Vision viewers (excluding the fact that the deal does not include Sky Sports 3 and 4), there are many who agree on just one point: the regulator got it wrong. The Premier League could lose millions due to a loss of exclusivity and BSkyB argues that Ofcom didn’t even have the right to make the ruling.
These mini disputes are likely to go on for some time, but at least we can be certain about one thing: Ofcom’s decision can’t be any worse than Capello’s decisions in South Africa! Bring on the Premier League!!
Sky Sports 1 and 2 available to BT vision customers BBC News (28/6/10)
BT to offer Sky Sports in time for soccer season Reuters (28/6/10)
BT signs BSkyB deal to show Sky Sports channels BusinessWeek, Simon Thiel (28/6/10)
Sky forced to cut price of sports channels Telegraph (31/3/10)
New ruling lets fans see Premier League on TV for just £15 a month London Evening Standard, Jonathan Prynn (31/3/10)
Virgin media cuts Sky Channels prices Digital Spy, Andrew Laughlin (11/6/10)
BSkyB, BT and FAPL join Ofcom appeal Broadband TV News (11/6/10)
Sky wrongfoots rival BT by raising prices Guardian, Richard Wray (30/6/10)
BT charges £16.99 for Sports 1 and 2 BBC News (1/7/10)
BT launches cheap package to view Sky Sports Guardian, Lisa Bachelor (1/7/10)
BT Wades Into Pay-TV Sports Market Sky News, Nick Phipps and Emma Rowley (1/7/10)
Sky Sports broadcast costs set to rise BBC News, John Moylan (1/7/10)
Delivering consumer benefits in Pay TV Ofcom Press Release (31/3/10)
- Ofcom’s initial ruling forced Sky to reduce prices. What will be the impact on a demand curve? How might this affect consumer choice?
- Sky has 85% of the market. Would you class it as a monopoly? Explain your answer. Is this agreement between Sky and BT likely to reduce or increase Sky’s market power?
- How might other Pay-TV providers be affected by this decision?
- What are the disputes surrounding Ofcom’s decision? Why might the Premier League lose so much revenue?