The latest allegation against Google? Jon von Tetzchner, creator of the web browser Opera, says the search giant deliberately undermined his new browser, Vivaldi.
In a blogpost titled, “My friends at Google: it is time to return to not being evil,” von Tetzchner accuses the US firm of blocking Vivaldi’s access to Google AdWords, the advertisements that run alongside search results, without warning or proper explanation.
According to Von Tetzchner, the problem started in late May. Speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the Icelandic programmer criticised big tech companies’ attitude toward personal data, calling for a ban on location tracking on Facebook and Google. Two days later, he suddenly found Vivaldi’s Google AdWords campaigns had been suspended. “Was this just a coincidence?” he writes. “Or was it deliberate, a way of sending us a message?” He concludes: “Timing spoke volumes.”
Von Tetzchner got in touch with Google to try and resolve the issue. The result? What he calls “a clarification masqueraded in the form of vague terms and conditions.” The particular issue was the end-user license agreement (EULA), the legal contract between a software manufacturer and a user. Google wanted Vivaldi to add one to its website. So it did. But Google had further complaints.
According to emails shown to WIRED, Google wanted Vivaldi to add an EULA “within the frame of every download button”. The addition was small – a link below the button directing people to “terms” – but on the web, where every pixel matters, this was a potential competitive disadvantage. Most gallingly, Chrome, Google’s own web browser, didn’t display a EULA on its landing pages. Google also asked Vivaldi to add detailed information to help people uninstall it, with another link, also under the button.
When von Tetzchner argued his case, he was told that an EULA was not a “hard requirement,” in other words a requirement that would definitively break Google’s terms of service, and that suspensions were handled on a “case by case” basis. WIRED contacted Google for clarification but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Explaining its sudden demands, Google’s representatives told Vivaldi that they “rely on the advertisers to take responsibility when advertising with us, hence reading up on and following our policy guidelines”. But when Vivaldi looked, it couldn’t find direct guidelines on uninstallation in the help articles.
After three months of back-and-forth, Vivaldi gave in to Google’s requests. “In exchange for being reinstated in Google’s ad network, their in-house specialists dictated how we should arrange content on our own website and how we should communicate information to our users,” von Tetzchner writes.
The problem for von Tetzchner weren’t the changes, but the way in which they were demanded: aggressively, without warning, and without Google itself adhering to its own laws. Reflecting on his long history with Google, he concludes: “I am saddened by this makeover of a geeky, positive company into the bully they are in 2017.”
This is the latest accusation of anti-competitive behaviour to hit Google, which in June was fined £2.1 billion by the European Competition Commission, after a seven-year investigation concluded that the US firm had used its power in search to boost unfairly its Google Shopping product. Google was also recently accused of forcing think tank New American to fire its ten-person Open Markets team, after the group’s head, Barry Lynn, praised the Commission’s fine.
UPDATE (6 Sept 15:12): Google have responded. A spokesperson told WIRED: “We certainly don’t suspend anyone from Adwords because they criticise us. We do take action against sites that contravene our guidelines and policies about software downloads, which are there to ensure that our users know exactly what they’re downloading and that the installation process is safe and easy to understand. And we follow those same guidelines and policies for our own products.”