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Google gets UK antitrust probe into app payments

Google got a third antitrust probe from U.K’s competition watchdog, adding scrutiny of its app store payments to earlier investigations into advertising rules for in-app billing, the authority said Friday.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also announced a new market investigation into mobile browsers and cloud gaming where it says it sees Google and Apple “holding all the cards.” The new work follows up on a just-published report into mobile ecosystems.

The CMA set a December target for an initial probe into how Google’s Play Store rules require app developers to use Google’s own payment system, Google Play Billing, for in-app purchases, regulators said. It is already investigating Google’s adtech stack and ad bidding.

The fees that Google and Apple charge developers selling in their app stores are being scrutinized by antitrust agencies and courts around the world. Taking a cut of app sales has boosted revenue for the two platforms and triggered complaints from developers that they face an unfair tax on their business.

Being forced to use Google or Apple’s in-app payment systems means developers can’t dodge the fees. The platforms argue that the revenue helps pay for the secure and well-functioning mobile app environment that they provide.

New Google Play Store rules came into force in April which require developers to use the firm’s own payment system for the sale of app services. Google had previously said that any apps that hadn’t stepped into line by June 1 would be removed from the Play Store.

Google said in response that it regularly reviews “how we can best support developers and have reacted quickly to CMA feedback in the past,” and committed to “review the report and continue to engage with the CMA.”

The CMA also said that it is consulting on the launch of a market investigation into Apple and Google’s market power in mobile browsers and Apple’s restrictions on cloud gaming through its App Store, following the publication of a year-long study of the companies’ mobile ecosystems which found that both companies have a “stranglehold” over these markets. The CMA already has a probe into Apple’s app store.

“Right now, choice in this space is severely limited and that has real impacts – preventing innovation and reducing competition from web apps,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief of the U.K authority. “We need to give innovative tech firms, many of which are ambitious start-ups, a fair chance to compete.”

Google’s in-app billing is also being probed by the Dutch antitrust authority based on a complaint from dating app Match about the new terms and conditions. A similar complaint targeting Google was also filed with Germany’s Federal Cartel Office.

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