EC's anti-competitive stance is laudable, its action over Google & Android is laughable

As a football fan, one of my primary experiences of European antitrust law comes through watching the English Premier League on TV.

Once upon a time, I paid Sky Sports for a subscription and saw any and all of the games that the Premier League allowed to broadcast live.

Then the European Commission got involved and deemed the Premier League’s process for selling live broadcast rights to be anti-competitive because only one TV company was allowed to win.

As a result, live English football from the top division is now broadcast in the UK by two companies – Sky and BT. Therefore, as a football fan I have to take out two subscriptions to watch all the Premier League football I want. Strangely, the combined value of the two is more than I used to pay for one subscription.

And because of that extra competition in the market, the price paid by broadcasters for Premier League rights has ballooned. So, the price of a subscription to Sky Sports is going up more than usual to pay for the huge bid Sky submitted to maintain its position as the main football broadcaster.

Therefore, thanks to the European Commission’s intervention to stop the Premier League’s anti-competitive behaviour, consumers now have to pay far more money, the broadcasters have to bid far higher sums of cash, and that terror of anti-competitiveness, the Premier League, is forced by those European regulations to, erm, make an even bigger profit than it ever had before.

In 2009, the European Commission forced Microsoft to promote alternative web browsers to Windows users, having previously bundled Internet Explorer, after an investigation into anti-competitive behaviour. As a result, Windows users were forced to go through a “browser choice” screen when setting up their PCs to offer a range of alternative browsers. Most consumers had no idea what they were being asked to do, and by this time most of those who did understand had already deserted IE anyway.

In 2012 Microsoft was fined €561m by the European Commission after a “technical error” meant the browser choice function was omitted from Windows 7. By this time, the growth of smartphones already meant most people were browsing the web on a mobile anyway.

Microsoft had previously been fined €497m in 2004, for anti-competitive behaviour that involved bundling Windows Media Player into  the operating system, thereby restricting competition for rival media player software. The software firm was forced thereafter to sell two versions of Windows – one with its own media player, and one without. Needless to say almost nobody bought the one without.

Did any of those actions against Microsoft make the slightest bit of difference to the European technology market? Not at all.

Now it’s Google coming under the EC’s antitrust microscope for the way it packages Android onto smartphones and the deals it strikes with phone makers to use the operating system.

There are plenty of people understandably eager to see Google – and other US internet giants – brought down a peg or two, and it’s a good thing that the EU is willing to stand up to the aggressive marketing that some of these companies employ.

But does anybody really think that forcing Google to unbundle elements of Android – in particular its search engine – will make the slightest difference to the market? Will consumers benefit, or will they just end up as confused as the users suddenly told to choose whether they wanted a version of Windows with or without or media player, or unexpectedly made to select from a list of browsers when they probably never even realised they were using IE before?

It’s difficult to argue against the principle of preventing anti-competitive behaviour by companies like Microsoft and Google that have achieved dominance in a particular part of the technology market. Nobody is suggesting they should be allowed to abuse that dominance to the detriment of rivals or customers.

But does the world really need to force Android users to select which search engine they want to use, or which app store?

It’s worth noting that Apple is not considered anti-competitive for disallowing such choices on an iPhone, because Apple doesn’t allow any competition in the iOS market. Because Google allows more openness in the Android ecosystem, it is therefore not allowed to abuse its own dominance of that ecosystem.

It’s entirely daft.

Who will benefit if the Commission is successful here? Will consumers, who may face more complexity or even more costs as a result? Will rival providers of mobile phone search engines benefit? (At this point, please chip in if you can list more than one – and if you can, hope you’re enjoying being a Windows Phone user).

Providers of rival Android app stores will benefit – many of which are riven with malware, but that’s another matter.

Providers of rival forks of Android might benefit – unlucky consumers if they do, as the market gets split by confusing Android incompatibilities.

The principles that the Commission seeks to uphold are laudable. The practicalities are laughable.

Besides, Android users can’t afford any extra costs if we’re already having to stump up all that extra cash for our wonderfully competitive live TV market for English football.

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