On Tuesday, Google proposed a remedy to comply with a July European Commission ruling that came with a $5 billion fine. The proposal confirms the validity of the European antitrust regulators' complaint: The search giant really wants consumers to use only two of its mobile apps -- Google Search and Google Chrome. That's a good reason not to use them.
"The pre-installation of Google Search and Chrome together with our other apps helped us fund the development and free distribution of Android," Google said, adding that phone manufacturers will have to pay for preinstalling the other Google apps without these two.
The move brings to mind a Russian joke from the 1990s, when business owners routinely put off paying workers' salaries because of liquidity shortages. One factory owner tells another: "Imagine, I haven't been paying salaries for six months but people still come to work!" The other says, "You should try charging entrance fees." A week later they meet again, and the first factory owner says, "OK, so now workers have to pay to get into the factory. But you know what? They've stopped leaving for the night."
That's an apt description of the kind of result Google appears to want. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Shira Ovide wrote: "Now that they're addicted, Google is asking everyone to pay up to keep getting their Google fix." In practice, of course, the license fees for the Google app suite minus Search and Chrome -- the Google Play app store, Photos, Maps, the Hangouts messenger, Google Drive and other popular products -- could be offset by whatever payments the search company might offer device makers so they would preinstall Search and Chrome. That's probably what will happen with most of the popular manufacturers, who won't be particularly interested in putting out different versions of their phones for Europe only.
The European Commission can't really do anything about Google's near-monopoly in mobile operating systems; the company's proposed remedy is nothing but a fig leaf in Silicon Valley's tradition of complying with the letter, not the spirit of European rulings. But besides levying heavy fines, the commission can also communicate its unease over Silicon Valley business models that treat users as chattel, providing "free' services in exchange for personal data. I get the message.
There's no need for Android users to wait for manufacturers to come up with quirky phones using Android modifications, or "mods" (under Google's proposal, manufacturers who install the company-approved version of the operating system will be allowed to experiment with these, too). And it's irrelevant whether some phones in Europe will come with exotic combinations of default search engines, browsers, mail map clients, and even alternative app stores.
The beauty of Android is that it's easily customisable. On Apple's iOS, one can't even change the default browser. On Android, it's a matter of a few clicks. Most alternative browsers work just as well as Chrome and aren't as demanding of a device's resources. Some are designed to keep data collection about the user to a bare minimum.
As for the search app, it's not much more than a data collection tool for Google. There isn't even any need to replace it: It's no hassle to search for anything you need from the browser, using any combination of search engines, including or excluding Google's.
My current phone came with Chrome and Search preinstalled. I picked a different default browser and disabled the search app.
It's not a fully reliable way of opting out of Google's relentless data collection. According to a paper published in August by Douglas Schmidt of Vanderbilt University (which Google dismissed as biased and misleading), a fifth to a third of all traffic between an Android device and Google's servers can have to do with the user's physical location. Telling Google not to track won't necessarily stop the practice, an AP investigation has found. The search company will still collect data through cookies on third-party websites, no matter what browser you use; despite Europe's digital privacy rules, which ostensibly make such cookies avoidable, it's too much of a hassle to fight the various ways in which many websites impose them on the user.
Ditching Chrome and Search, however, is an easy way to reduce the amount of information Google gets, essentially without users' informed consent despite its pro forma compliance with European regulations. Facebook users who, like me, recently had their email addresses, phone numbers and lots of other data taken by hackers know why it's a good idea to share as little of one's personal information as possible with ad-based businesses. Google isn't much better at keeping your data from being stolen.
Google says it uses the data collection of Chrome and Search to subsidise other products. Well, if the company is willing to charge phone manufacturers for those products, why not end users? Putting a price on the Google apps, against a promise of no data collection, would quickly show which of them are viable.