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EU 'looking closely' at Google's app dominance

Europe's competition watchdogs are concerned that preloaded Google apps on Android phones may push consumers away from competitors' services.

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EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is determined to put consumers ahead of big companies.

Thierry Tronnel/Corbis

The European Union's watchdog arm is as worried as ever that Google's preinstalled apps on Android phones sway consumers away from alternatives.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU's competition commissioner, voiced her concern Monday that Google and other enormous tech companies such as Amazon are stifling innovation. She also reiterated her commitment to putting consumers' needs first, having cracked down on Google earlier this decade for favoring its own shopping service in Internet search results.

Phones that run on Google's Android software come straight out of the box with a defined set of Google services such as a browser, search tool and maps app. The fact that the phones are ready to go from the start has its benefits, Vestager acknowledged in a speech Monday at the Consumer and Competition Day in Brussels. The downside is that consumers may not feel the need to seek out alternatives from Google's rivals.

"By requiring phone makers and operators to preload a set of Google apps, rather than letting them decide for themselves which apps to load, Google might have cut off one of the main ways that new apps can reach customers," Vestager said.

Investigations into the impact of Google's dominance in the mobile phone market and Amazon's dealings with ebook publishers are ongoing.

"I can't yet say if either of them has broken the rules," said Vestager. "But I can say that innovation matters. To consumers, and to us as competition enforcers."

The EU investigation into Android phones, which has been going on for more than a year, seeks to weigh the benefits of convenience to consumers against the pitfalls of Google not giving phone manufacturers more flexibility to make decisions themselves.

Android users are of course free to download any apps they wish to use, and a Google spokeswoman added that Android users do not have to use Google applications. "Hardware manufacturers and carriers can decide how to use Android and consumers have the last word about which apps they want to use on their devices," she said. "We continue to discuss this with the European Commission."

In the case of Amazon, the EU's competition watchdog opened an investigation last June into whether the company's contracts with publishers could prevent e-book sellers from setting up new, rival business models. The contracts state that publishers must tell Amazon when they offer its competitors a different deal. If a rival is offered a better deal, that deal must then be offered to Amazon as well.

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment.

The investigation into Google may conclude this year and could result in a multibillion-dollar fine if the results are not in Google's favor. The company could also be forced to change its business practices to continue operating in Europe.