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Google hit with $123M antitrust fine in Italy over Android Auto

Google has been fined just over €100 million (~$123M) by Italy’s antitrust watchdog for abuse of a dominant market position.

The case relates to Android Auto, a modified version of Google’s mobile OS intended for in-car use, and specifically to how Google restricted access to the platform to an electric car charging app, called JuicePass, made by energy company Enel X Italia.

Android Auto lets motorists directly access a selection of relevant apps (like maps and music streaming services) via a dash-mounted screen. But Enel X Italia’s JuicePass app was not one of the third party apps Google granted access to.

The app is accessible via the smartphone version of the Android platform — but of course a driver shouldn’t be reaching for their phone when at the wheel. So barring access through Android Auto puts a significant blocker on relevant usage.

Google’s market restriction of JuicePass has drawn the attention — and now the ire — of Italy’s competition watchdog.

The AGCM said today that Google has violated Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union — and has ordered it to make the JuicePass available via the platform.

It also says Google must to provide the same interoperability with Android Auto to other third party app developers.

The authority points out that the Google Maps app, which offers some basic services for electric vehicle charging (such as finding and getting directions to charging points), is available via Android Auto — and could, in future, incorporate directly competitive features like payments.

“According to the Authority’s findings, Google did not allow Enel X Italia to develop a version of its JuicePass app compatible with Android Auto, a specific Android feature that allows apps to be used while the user is driving in compliance with safety, as well as distraction reduction, requirements,” the AGCM writes in a press release announcing the sanction [translated to English using Google Translate]. “JuicePass enables a wide range of services for recharging electric vehicles, ranging from finding a charging station to managing the charging session and reserving a place at the station; this latter function guarantees the actual availability of the infrastructure once the user reaches it.

“By refusing Enel X Italia interoperability with Android Auto, Google has unfairly limited the possibilities for end users to avail themselves of the Enel X Italia app when driving and recharging an electric vehicle. Google has consequently favored its own Google Maps app, which runs on Android Auto and enables functional services for electric vehicle charging, currently limited to finding and getting directions to reach charging points, but which in the future could include other functionalities such as reservation and payment.”

Google denies any wrongdoing and says it disagrees with the order. But it did not confirm whether or not it intends to appeal.

The tech giant claims the restrictions it places on apps’ access to Android Auto are necessary to ensure drivers are not distracted. It also told us that it has been opening up the platform to more apps over time — with “thousands” now compatible.

It added that its intention is to keep expanding availability.

Google did not comment on why Enel X Italia’s app for recharging electric vehicles was not among the “thousands” it has already granted access to, however.

Per the AGCM, Enel X Italia’s app has been excluded from Android Auto for more than two years.

Here’s Google’s statement:

“The number one priority for Android Auto is to ensure apps can be used safely while driving. That’s why we have strict guidelines on the types of apps which are currently supported and these are based on driver-distraction tests and regulatory and industry standards. Thousands of applications are already compatible with Android Auto, and our goal is to allow even more developers to make their apps available over time. For example, we have introduced templates for navigation, charging, and parking apps, open for any developer to use. We disagree with the Authority’s decision and we will review our options.”

Google has a dominant position in the market via the Android smartphone platform, with a marketshare in Italy of around three-quarters according to the competition watchdog.

Under European Union law, a finding of market dominance in one market puts a responsibility on a company not to restrict competition in any other markets where it operates — and the EU already found Google to be a dominant company in general Internet search in every market in the European Economic Area back in 2017.

The AGCM said it’s concerned about the impact of Google’s restrictions on app access to Android Auto on the growth of the electric mobility market.

“If it were to continue, [it] could permanently jeopardise Enel X Italia’s chances of building a solid user base at a time of significant growth in sales of electric vehicles,” it wrote, adding that Google’s action in excluding the JuicePass app meant it did not appear in the list of applications used by users — thereby reducing consumer choice and creating a barrier to innovation.

The authority suggests Google’s conduct could influence the development of electric mobility during a crucial phase — as recharging infrastructures for electric cars are being built out and can help fuel growth and demand for recharging services.

“Consequently, possible negative effects could occur to the diffusion of electric vehicles, to the use of ‘clean’ energy and to the transition towards a more environmentally sustainable mobility,” it warned, linking anti-competitive behavior to negative consequences for the environment.

The AGCM added that it will monitor Google’s compliance with its order to ensure it effectively and correctly implements the obligations to provide third party app developers with access to Android Auto.

The authority’s action could be a taster of what’s coming down the pipe for gatekeeper players like Google in Europe under the incoming Digital Markets Act (DMA).

The flagship legislative proposal is intended to supplement ex post competition law enforcement with ex ante rules on how dominant platforms which intermediate others’ market access can behave — including by imposing up front requirements that they support interoperability.

The idea with the DMA is to supplement the slow and painstaking work needed to bring competition investigations to fruition with proactive measures slapped on tech giants to prevent certain types of known market abuse in the first place. Although the regulation is likely years out from being adopted and applied across the EU.

In the meanwhile competition probes of big tech continue.

Italy’s AGCM opened one into Google’s ad display business last October, for example.

Google has already faced a number of EU antitrust decision in recent years — including a $5BN penalty over how it operates Android. Although search rivals continue to complain that the remedy Google devised for that 2018 decision still does not sum to fair competition.




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