Google offers Europeans choice to download rival web browser

Google began prompting Android users in Europe with the choice of downloading an alternative to its own Chrome web browser and search engine, in a bid to fend off antitrust scrutiny by European competition regulators.

Starting Thursday and following a software update, users in the EU opening Google’s mobile app store will be presented with a choice of alternatives to Google search and Chrome. The Alphabet Inc. unit said options will vary by market, but Microsoft Corp.’s Bing and Norway’s Opera are notable competitors in the European search and browser market respectively.

The changes could help Google avoid additional fines after being scrutinized by the EU for almost a decade. The European Commission, the bloc’s antitrust body, last year fined Google 4.3 billion euros ($4.8 billion) for strong-arming device makers into pre-installing its Google search and Chrome browser, giving it a leg up because users are unlikely to look for alternatives if a default is already preloaded. The EU ordered Google to change that behavior and threatened additional fines if it failed to comply.

In a statement, FairSearch, a group that includes Czech search engine and Oracle Corp., rejected the changes as insufficient. “It does nothing to correct the central problem that Google apps will remain the default on all Android devices,” the group said. FairSearch filed one of the first complaints to the EU on Android.

The search giant announced in March that it would roll out the changes. “We’ve been listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting, both from the European Commission, and from others,” Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker said at the time. “As a result, over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to our products in Europe.”

Thursday’s implementation of the browser selection screen is the first major manifestation of that guarantee, and closely resembles the approach Microsoft took a decade ago to appease European regulators for a similar reason. The Redmond, Washington-based company agreed in 2009 to present Windows users with a choice of a dozen web browsers when setting up the operating system, downgrading its own Internet Explorer from being the controversial default to just an option among many.

At the time, analysts saw the accord between Microsoft and the EU as a smart way of dissolving the antitrust issue and avoid further fines. But it arrived as Internet Explorer’s dominance was being eroded anyway by Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome, and was deemed unlikely to have contributed significantly to its eventual demise.

Chrome on Android is in a very different position, however. The Google-made browser is used by 89 percent of Android users according to research firm NetMarketShare. Alternatives, such as Firefox or Opera, can only stand to benefit in Europe by being given greater visibility.

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Google offers Europeans choice to download rival web browser