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Google has a 'steep hill to climb' with its Play Store lawsuit and needs to prove 'its rules aren't Draconian'

Google Play Store Moto Hero
Google Play Store Moto Hero (Image credit: Chris Wedel/Android Central)

Google is hit with another lawsuit, this time targeting its Play Store for being anti-competitive and monopolistic. Some experts say that Google will have a "steep hill to climb" to battle this fight, and instead of trying to "point the finger at others," it needs to start proving its worth.

Last week, New York Attorney General and a coalition of 37 state attorney generals slapped Google with a lawsuit alleging that the Play Store has an unfair hold over app distribution on Android and that Google discourages the use of third-party app stores. It also claims that Google puts its own apps ahead of the competition by giving them prominent placement on the best Android phones as pre-loaded apps.

"Through its illegal conduct, the company has ensured that hundreds of millions of Android users turn to Google, and only Google, for the millions of applications they may choose to download to their phones and tablets," Letitia James, New York Attorney General, said in a statement. "Worse yet, Google is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of small businesses that are only seeking to compete."

While many experts say that the lawsuit is very similar to the Epic Games trial against Apple, which states similar allegations, Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank, said in an interview that, unlike that trial, this case is likely easier to fight in court.

"It is very similar to Apple. But the complaint involves some agreements that were imposed by third parties like phone makers," she said.

"It's easier to go after anti-competitive conduct when there's an agreement as opposed to when it's just Apple doing things unilaterally on its own; it's usually a harder case," Hubbard said.

And while Epic Games is in the middle of a fight with Apple, it also sued Google for antitrust violations. In that lawsuit, Epic Games alleged that Google forced phone manufacturer OnePlus to break off a deal that would have seen a special Fortnite launcher preinstalled on OnePlus phones.

Per the lawsuit documents: "Google was 'particularly concerned that Epic Games app would have ability to potentially install and update multiple games with a silent install bypassing the Google Play Store.' Further any waiver of Google's restrictions 'would be rejected due to the Epic Games app serving as a potential portfolio of games and game updates.'"

Epic Games Oneplus

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Hubbard, whose work focuses on Big Tech, explained that unlike Apple, Google licenses its entire operating system to third-party companies, and "no phone maker can sell their phones without the Android operating system, without the Google Play Store and so, therefore, they have to accept whatever terms and conditions Google puts on."

Google has a much tighter control over OEMs than it ever has

OnePlus 9 Pro review

Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

She said that this case is entirely comparable to United States vs. Microsoft, in which the U.S. government accused Microsoft of illegally maintaining its monopoly in the PC market by the restrictions it put on manufacturers and users to uninstall Internet Explorer and use other programs like Netscape and Java.

"Phone makers do not have any bargaining power or option to do something else besides what the monopolist is telling them to do," she said.

Neil Shah, vice-president of research at Counterpoint Research, said in an interview that because there's an app store duopoly — iOS and Android, almost having similar payment and revenue structure for app developers — the narrative has to be balanced. That means that if Apple is accused of monopolistic behavior, then Google deserves to be hit as well, he said.

The problem for developers is that Google has integrated its platform so extensively that it's becoming "increasingly difficult for OEMS and developers to bypass Google as it has built a platform which is now much superior and better only when it is integrated with Google services."

In its defense, Google's senior director of public policy, Wilson White, wrote in a blog post that the lawsuit alleges the company doesn't provide other options other than to use Google Play, which isn't accurate.

"Choice has always been a core tenant of Android," White wrote. "In Fact, most Android devices ship with two or more app stores preloaded. And popular Android devices such as the Amazon Fire tablet home preloaded with a competitive app store and no Google Play Store."

Google also noted that the company provides more "openness and choice than others," adding that the Play Store is different from other app stores and "doesn't impose the same restrictions as other mobile operating systems do."

But despite that, the lawsuit states that Android is the "only viable operating system available to license by mobile device manufacturers and sell their devices to U.S. customers." It noted that Google, "which controls approximately 99% of this market," has durable monopoly power in the market and considerable leverage over mobile device manufacturers and Android app developers."

It also adds that the Play Store distributes over 90% of all Android apps in the U.S. and that "no competing Android app store has more than 5% of the market."

In 2020, Google Play users worldwide downloaded 108.5 mobile apps, up from 76 billion apps in 2018, according to Statista. Data shows that the Play Store "generates significantly more downloads than the Apple App Store, as it is available for a wider range of devices than Apple's closed iOS ecosystem, which is only available for Apple devices."

Statistic: Annual number of app downloads from the Google Play Store worldwide from 2016 to 2020 (in billions) | Statista

Find more statistics at Statista

Carl Szabo, vice-president and general counsel of NetChoice, an industry group whose founders include Google, Facebook, and Amazon, said these lawsuits are invalid.

"It's very interesting that this is being brought against Google's App Store when the case is potentially one of the weakest, and that's because the Android operating system allows sideloading," he said. "Every Android device has two or more app stores pre-installed when you get the device. And there are examples of Android-based devices that don't even have the App store of the Play store installed at all."

Szabo, who worked for former FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle, added that the lawsuit questions whether what is alleged really matches the reality, noting that they do not match.

He said that in the case of Epic Games, as soon as the judge dismisses the case, the same will happen to this lawsuit with Google's Play Store.

"The state's attorneys are going to have little or no leg to stand on," he said.

Google has to change its approach

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Hayato Huseman / Android Central)

Carmi Levy, a technology analyst, said that Google will have to stop "trying to point the finger at others" and instead focus on telling the story about its own business practices.

"It needs to somehow prove that, despite the accusations, its model offers more opportunity than choiceless despair to Google's often-much-smaller competition, that its rules aren't Draconian at all, and rather are designed to create opportunity and encourage innovation among all players," he said. "It's a steep hill to climb, and in the current climate, I doubt Google's lawyers will find much sympathy in open court given the evidence to the contrary."

He said that the entire app store ecosystem is at stake and how much power Google deserves to have as it balances its own profitability and growth against accusations.

"And while this particular case zeroes in on Google, let's not delude ourselves into thinking the shadow doesn't extend to Apple, as well. Indeed, the entire app store economy will potentially be on trial here because whatever precedent is set here will ultimately impact Apple's platform, as well," he said.

Levy agreed with Hubbard and noted that, unlike Apple, Google has earned by virtue of the fact that it built the platform in the first place and continues to set and enforce the rules.

"When your only choice is to distribute your digital wares through an app store, you have no voice if the company that runs that app store decides to play hardball," he said.

He added that the timing of this lawsuit isn't coincidental as more lawmakers around the world scrutinize Big Tech. And while no one can predict the outcome of this particular lawsuit, Levy says that "Google is no different than any tech company on the wrong side of an antitrust accusation: it disagrees with the charges, will strongly defend them, and will spend as much time, money, and energy as it can to prove its case."

Shruti Shekar
Managing Editor

Shruti Shekar is Android Central's managing editor. She was born in India, brought up in Singapore, but now lives in Toronto and couldn't be happier. She started her journalism career as a political reporter in Ottawa, Canada's capital, and then made her foray into tech journalism at MobileSyrup and most recently at Yahoo Finance Canada. When work isn't on her mind, she loves working out, reading thrillers, watching the Raptors, and planning what she's going to eat the next day.

16 Comments
  • The US government are Apple fanboys, why aren't they going after Apple who's AppStore policies are as draconian if not more so, Apple won't give consumers choice like Google does with the Play Store and yes there's room for improvement. There's a reason why Google discourage the use of 3rd party app stores, for security reasons like them being full of malware.
  • The word fanboy should not come out of your mouth. Beno the king fanboy. The main difference between play store and the App Store is Google can’t contain malware.
  • Good grief dude. I honestly can not tell if you say the things you say to troll people or (and I hate to say it) you are really ignorant and lack the reading comprehension skills to really understand what's going on. Either way you should just stop. You are making yourself look really clueless.
  • So Android users have the Amazon app store, and Samsung users have the option of the the Samsung app store vs Apple that doesn't give it's users the option of any other app store. Only until recently you couldn't even set default 3rd party apps on iPhones. This lawsuit should be thrown out. It has no merit.
  • Exactly, the Jokers behind this lawsuit have no case and are clearly Apple fanboys LOL.
  • Only jokers are the ones who blindly follow Google
  • Only Jokers on here who blindly follow Samsung.
  • There is a difference between the Apple case and the Google one... With Apple you can only buy Apple hardware and the whole ecosystem is controlled and run by them... However you don't have to buy and Apple phone... With Android you have a choice, you are not forced to buy your handset from Google but Google's playstore has a monopoly with all app purchases earning them 30% commission, this on top of the data collected from all the Google apps which are installed on the phone most of which cannot be uninstalled only disabled...
  • The 30% is steep but again it's Google's house and they can do what they want. This lawsuit is ********.
  • This lawsuit have exposed what most folks knew but the fanatic refused to acknowledged for years. As this lawsuit showed, the Samsung store was a front, Google have been paying Samsung for years. Google keep saying Android is open while the have contracts in place with the carriers to block non sanctions Google Android. This suit showed the length Google goes to make sure Android stay under Google's control. Google is fine to take that stand if they wanted (Apple does). The difference is, Apple is not licensing their OS to any third parties like Google does and therefore not/can't harm themselves.
    The only avenue folks can bring suit to Apple is their lock on the Appstore and the fees they charge. I don't see the government winning either of those cases against Apple. Google on the other hand is a different story, they have a ton of contracts with different vendors and entities which will bite them in the end. Google forgo control to gain market share but later wanted to apply those same controls. You can't have it both ways and this is why they will lose their case while Apple will most likely come out with minimal damage.
  • There used to be a setting that would allow or disallow apps from anything but the play store. Now apparently permission to download from "unknown" sources is at a app level, but presumably you could allow Chrome or some other app to download and install an app from some other store. Then you could presumably allow that app to do the same. If the user has the ability to bypass the play store and go elsewhere, there doesn't seem to be a monopoly. You can trust Google (or Samsung, or Amazon) to police their apps or open Chrome other browser to allow downloading from any source and take the risk on yourself. If I am trusting Google to police apps, I want them to be Draconian. I go to the play store to get honest descriptions of apps, and to get apps that won't rip me off or hijack my data. If an app downloads others, I want to know that and decide if I should allow it or not. Maybe that "feature" should be prominently displayed in the app store the way for-pay options are so I could decide if I want to install it at all.
  • This is not what the government is looking at. That's what and where Google wants everyone to focus but that is not where the focus should be, the focus is rightly place on all the contracts (unseen to the fanatics) Google have in place with different players to make sure no one can upend Google's control of Android. Its the reason everything now fall under the playstore services. Google is fine to take that stand if they want, after all Apple has. The issue is once you have an open system you open yourself up to everything that's happening now. The government can't bring those charges against Apple since Apple does not license iOS and can't harm itself. Stop pointing at sideloading, that's not the issue, the issue is all the stuffs they do behind closed doors to maintain control and make sure no other vendors appstores can succeed. Since Apple have a closed platform/shop they are not liable for such a complaint.
  • Android is a better place because of Google's control. The lawsuit is BS and they won't be successful. They should be going after Apple over their monopoly with the AppStore.
  • Not going to waste my time arguing since you present no argument and are just trolling as usual.
  • This isn't trolling, if the US government is going to go after Google then they should go after Apple as well for their own anti consumer business model in not allowing game streaming on the AppStore you're anti Google and that's the only thing I have to say to you, because you're a biased anti Google and Samsung troll.
  • Well, this is a mess. Let's see what comes out of it.