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Google is manipulating browser extensions to stifle competitors, DuckDuckGo CEO says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/5/2022 Cristiano Lima, Aaron Schaffer

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Below: President Biden touts the 5G agreement struck with wireless carriers, and Tesla takes heat for its new showroom in China. First up:

Google is manipulating browser extensions to stifle competitors, DuckDuckGo CEO says

DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg testifies at a Senate hearing on March 12, 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images) © Alex Wong/Getty Images DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg testifies at a Senate hearing on March 12, 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Google is already facing mounting legal challenges from regulators globally who accuse the tech giant of maintaining an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising businesses. 

But now one of its most prominent rivals is alleging that the titan is abusing browser extensions to favor its products and stifle competitors, adding a new wrinkle to the high-stakes antitrust debate and momentum to calls for new regulation.

DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company offers a competing search engine that touts its privacy protections, told myself and Gerrit De Vynck during an interview Tuesday that Google is deploying manipulative design features, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into abandoning rival products. 

According to DuckDuckGo, Google for years has used misleading notifications to lure users into disabling its rival’s browser extensions and to discourage them from switching their default search engines on its web browser, Chrome. But Weinberg said Google in August 2020 tweaked the prompts to more blatantly nudge users away from jumping ship. 

The changes include requiring users to answer whether they would rather “Change back to Google search” after adding the DuckDuckGo extension and showing users a larger, highlighted button when giving them the option to “Change it back” or not. 

Weinberg said the tweaks — although subtle — have had a major impact. 

Since Google implemented the changes, DuckDuckGo said it has seen a significant drop — 10 percent — in how many new users it has been able to retain on its services on Chrome. DuckDuckGo said that has translated to hundreds of thousands of new users lost. (Chrome is the world’s most prevalent desktop browser by a wide margin.)

It’s the first time the company is publicly speaking out about how the practice has impacted its business, including what it says are millions in potential lost revenue since Google changed its prompts in 2020.

“For search engines like us that are trying to actively allow consumers to switch, [or] choose an alternative, they're making it unreasonably complicated to do so and confusing consumers,” Weinberg said of Google. 

Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister said in a statement that Chrome users “can directly change their default search settings at any time,” but they often complain “when they download an extension that unexpectedly changes these settings without their knowledge.”

She added, “This issue has been well-documented for a long time and is why we have long had clear disclosure requirements for extensions and shown users a notification if any extension tries to change their search settings — as a way to confirm their intent.”

McAlister said the notification appears “regardless of the user’s chosen search provider,” and that some other browsers have “similar policies.”

Weinberg said he hopes by speaking out about the tactic it will strengthen calls for bipartisan antitrust legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill to ban major platforms from prioritizing their own products and disadvantaging rivals. 

The proposals are just some of the numerous bills targeting what U.S. lawmakers say are anti-competitive abuses by companies like Google. But the bills, spearheaded by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), boast broad backing from Democrats and Republicans, making them among the most threatening for Silicon Valley giants. They're seen as bellwethers for the larger antitrust push.

Weinberg said the drop in user retention via their extension on Chrome, which was previously unreported, is one of the most “direct” pieces of evidence they have seen about how Google’s practices have harmed their business. 

“I think it really helps to make it concrete and show some very specific examples of where things are happening,” he said during a 30-minute video interview. 

It’s a finding that could also serve as fodder for state and federal enforcers as they press ahead with their antitrust lawsuits against the tech behemoth.

The Justice Department in October 2020 filed a gargantuan lawsuit alleging that Google violated several federal antitrust laws through its search practices. Dozens of state attorneys general in December of that year followed suit with a separate antitrust complaint against the tech giant. Google has disputed allegations it stifles competition and argued the lawsuits are flawed.

Weinberg said the company has briefed policymakers in Washington and regulators about its concerns over Google’s search engine practices, including those leading antitrust efforts in Congress. “A lot of people have reached out to us over time, and we are responsive,” he said.

He added, “We’ve been in touch with the DOJ and we’re trying to help them, and the states for that matter, in their case to provide them with any information that would be helpful.”

But those legal bouts are poised to drag out over several years, which Weinberg said makes the need for Congress to act and pass new laws even more pressing.

“We definitely need momentum on real legislation,” he said.

Google is fighting antitrust battles overseas, too, including in the European Union, where in November it lost a major appeal to overturn a landmark antitrust case. The bloc is also advancing two major proposals, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, that aim to curtail alleged abuses by giant tech platforms. But that’s not all DuckDuckGo has its eyes on.

Video: Unvaccinated Google employees could face termination next year (Yahoo! Finance)

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“The two other countries that we’re focused on is Australia and the [United Kingdom],” Weinberg said. 

Those are just two more regions where Google and other tech giants are now facing surging efforts to overhaul regulation of their sector.

Our top tabs

Tesla faces criticism for opening showroom in China’s Xinjiang region

Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, are popular in China. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters) © Dado Ruvic/Reuters Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, are popular in China. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

Activists have criticized the electric carmaker for opening a showroom in Urumqi, the capital of the Chinese region where officials have conducted a crackdown on Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group, Maite Fernández Simon reports. Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director of the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, called on Tesla CEO Elon Musk to close the showroom and “cease what amounts to economic support for genocide.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also blasted the decision, saying in a tweet linking to a story on the move that “nationless corporations are helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up genocide and slave labor in the region.”

Tesla and Musk have broad popularity and official approval in China despite recent backlash over allegations that satellites belonging to Musk’s SpaceX presented risks to China’s space station.

Biden applauded AT&T and Verizon for agreeing to a two-week delay of their 5G rollout

The companies plan to launch the technology on Jan. 19. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP) © Mark Schiefelbein/AP The companies plan to launch the technology on Jan. 19. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told the two companies in a letter that the Biden administration won’t try to further delay the rollout past Jan. 19 barring any “unforeseen aviation safety issues,” Reuters’s David Shepardson reports. President Biden called the companies’ agreement a “significant step in the right direction.” 

Transportation officials sought a delay amid warnings by the aviation industry that 5G technology could impact airline safety systems. 

Verizon sees no airline safety issues with 5G technology, but the FAA “intended to disrupt an already difficult time for air travel if we move ahead with our planned activation,” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told employees. “We felt that it was the right thing to do for the flying public, which includes our customers and all of us, to give the FAA a little time to work out its issues with the aviation community.”

The FTC threatened legal action and fines if companies don’t protect themselves against a software bug

a stove top oven sitting inside of a building: Lawmakers want the FTC to take action on the apps. (Alex Brandon/AP) © Alex Brandon/AP Lawmakers want the FTC to take action on the apps. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Companies that don’t quickly fix the vulnerability could harm consumers and open themselves up to mammoth financial penalties, the Federal Trade Commission said

It’s the strongest threat by the federal government for private companies to patch their systems to fix a vulnerability in popular open-source software known as log4j. The FTC raised the specter of Equifax, noting that the credit-rating agency paid $700 million to settle regulatory actions in the wake of a hack that exposed personal information of more than 100 million customers. The FTC accused Equifax of not patching a known software vulnerability, resulting in the hack.

The FTC warned that it “intends to use its full legal authority to pursue companies that fail to take reasonable steps to protect consumer data from exposure as a result of Log4j, or similar known vulnerabilities in the future.”

The regulator also signaled its plans to take a broader look at open-source software, which is prone to far-reaching bugs like log4j. Such projects “are often created and maintained by volunteers, who don’t always have adequate resources and personnel for incident response and proactive maintenance even as their projects are critical to the Internet economy,” the agency said. 

Rant and rave

Twitter is mourning the once-beloved BlackBerry, whose company stopped supporting this week. The Conservation Lands Foundation's David Feinman:

Vulture's Morgan A Baila:

Bloomberg's Zainub Amir:

Workforce report

Google will pay top execs $1 million each after declining to boost workers’ pay (The Verge)

Elizabeth Holmes learned all the wrong lessons from Silicon Valley (Nitasha Tiku and Rachel Lerman)

Privacy monitor

Come the Metaverse, can privacy exist? (Wall Street Journal)


  • Joe Kane has joined the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation as director of broadband and spectrum policy. Kane was previously a technology policy fellow at the R Street Institute.
  • TechNet announced four new hires: Dylan Hoffman will be the group’s executive director for California and the Southwest; he previously worked as the Internet Association’s director of California government affairs. Ebbie Yazdani, a former aide to Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), is joining the group as federal policy director. Nancy Gabaldon will be TechNet’s director of digital content; she previously worked at the National Guard Association of the United States. Shalaka Joshi, TechNet’s new state policy coordinator, previously worked at the New York State Insurance Fund.


Chinese state media releases video mocking Western fears of Huawei (Gizmodo)


  • Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger speaks at an Atlantic Council event Monday at 10 a.m.

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