Ecosia launches a cross-platform browser, starts an affiliate link program

Tree planting search engine Ecosia launched a new cross-platform browser today to increase its online footprint. The new browser, available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android, is built on top of Chromium. That’s why there aren’t many feature differences from Chrome. The company sees that as a good thing as people might be tempted to […]

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Ecosia adds a train travel search tool powered by Omio

Looking to ride the tracks of increasing demand for longer distance train travel that’s being fuelled by climate-concerned consumers seeking to shrink the environmental impact of their trips, tree-planting search engine Ecosia and multimodal travel booking platform Omio have partnered to launch what they’re billing as a “tree-planting rail travel booking tool”.

The idea is to make it easier for environmentally conscious Ecosia users who are searching the web for travel options to find and book low carbon train routes for their trips — helping to reduce carbon emissions from less environmentally friendly transport options (like flights) and fund not-for-profit Ecosia’s climate friendly tree-planting projects (and other decarbonization efforts) along the way.

The tie-up works by responding to Ecosia users’ travel keyword searches — in cases where the route can be served by train, such as “London to Cologne” or “Munich to Berlin” — by popping up the “Ecosia Trains” tool (pictured below). The integration lets users search for basic parameters of their journey directly within Ecosia. If they like the results the search returns and decide they do want to take the train the tool will then redirect them to a check-out page on Omio’s platform to make a booking.

Ecosia Trains train booking tool

Image credit: Ecosia

Given there’s an extra step of being passed from Ecosia’s site to Omio’s to actually do the booking, the tool is perhaps better described as a “tree-planting rail travel search tool”. Certainly it’s not ‘seamless’ one-click booking. But the basic idea is to boost discoverability of low carbon intercity and long haul transport options and ease train trip booking for climate conscious Ecosia users without them having to do the leg work of browsing to Omio’s website (or, indeed, another train trip booking platform such as Trainline) first.

Ecosia said it receives more than two million search enquiries per month for train booking phrases across Europe — which it suggests highlights “clear user demand for easy-to-use, train travel booking tools”.

Globally it notes that around 2.4% of CO2 emissions come from aviation — which it suggests puts an onus on making longer-distance rail journeys easier to book, since taking the train is 90% less carbon intensive on average so switching trips from air to rail can have a major impact in shrinking transport emissions.

“Unfortunately, the broader train booking market remains fragmented and by contrast much more straightforward to book a flight knowing you are paying the lowest possible price for your travel,” it also suggests, describing Omio as “one of the only platforms providing consumers with a holistic overview of rail travel options and their price”.

The train search tool is being made available to Ecosia users in 15 countries initially: The UK, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Norway, USA, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine — which are the markets where Omio has inked partnerships with train providers.

Rail providers whose tickets can be booked via the Omio integration include Amtrak in the US, LNER, GWR, Avanti in the UK, SNCF in France, OBB in Austria and Eurostar for cross-channel services, among others.

Ecosia is a not-for-profit so 100% of the profits from the commission it receives from Omio for successful bookings will go directly into its green initiatives — such as tree-planting projects in biodiversity hotspots and areas affected by deforestation, regenerative agriculture projects and investments into renewable energy.

The pair said they hope to expand the tie-up in future — giving the example of the tool also being able to showcase connection options and other more complex travel add-ons directly within Ecosia. “This partnership will hopefully expand in the future,” an Ecosia spokesperson told us, adding: “Omio and Ecosia share views on the importance of promoting train travel.”

It’s worth noting that Omio is a multi-modal travel booking platform which means it spans a range of different transport modes — including enabling users to book flights (which are the opposite of a low carbon travel option). So some might suggest it’s a touch hypocritical for a travel booking platform that helps the aviation industry sell tickets to be piggybacking on climate concern while its own platform directly monetizes travel by air.  

That said, the European startup did have an early focus on championing train travel as a more sustainable choice for long haul trips. So there’s an element of this tie-up circling back to its roots (back when it was known as GoEuro) — given its founder’s early conviction on the value of getting more travellers onto Europe’s extensive network of railways by taking the legacy pain out of booking train tickets. 

Fast forward a decade or so and scores of rail, bus, airline and ferry companies are now on-board with Omio’s booking platform, thanks to its success at inking partnerships with transport firms to populate its digital platform with their ticket inventory. And the company essentially has a full focus on providing transport-mode agnostic utility for travellers — making it easy for them to compare and book possible intercity or long haul travel options to get to their destination. (Albeit, it will default to surfacing available flight options when you search for long haul routes, even though rail is positioned first in the tabbed list of transport modes.)

But you can at least say it’s never been easier for travellers in Europe and North America to book a long haul trips by train thanks to the road-paving efforts of travel booking platforms like Omio.

With the Omio-Ecosia tie-up rail trip discoverability is getting a touch easier for climate-concerned consumers. While, for Omio, the tie-up means it gets to have its brand positioned in proximity to an eye-catching “sustainable travel” label displayed on the Ecosia tool — which its marketing team will surely be pointing back to as an example of how it’s encouraging “conscious travel”.

On that front, here’s Tommaso del Re, Omio’s VP of partnerships, with some prepared remarks:

Omio’s goal is to make travel seamless and accessible for everyone, anywhere at any time. We are especially thrilled to partner with Ecosia, as we believe in the importance of creating a more conscious travel future, and therefore want to foster partnerships that prioritise the planet. Flying is an important aspect of the travel ecosystem but we also want to empower travellers to choose more sustainable options, such as train travel, by surfacing all rail travel options in one place, making intercity and cross-border journeys effortless. Our partnership with Ecosia is another way we encourage conscious travel — and are looking forward to developing our partnership further.

Other Omio tie-ups include a partnership with Uber last year which saw it injecting train and coach travel options into the ride-hailing app in the U.K.

Ecosia gets a new look as it gears up for an era of green search

More updates from not-for-profit climate action search engine Ecosia: It’s given itself its first major branding refresh since launch back in 2009 at the same time as announcing a shift from 3-year to 20-year contracts for its tree planting projects — idea being to ensure that the trees planted with profits from its search ads are “intergenerational” and can survive for the long haul.

Also today, the search engine said it’s grown global usage to 20 million monthly active users — up from 15M between mid 2019 and 2021 — and is now serving half a billion searches each month. Usage of the search engine is highest in Germany, France, the U.K. and the U.S — and Ecosia tells us it’s looking to capitalize on the opportunities presented by a growing audience of climate aware, and often young, users.

Tree planting is a popular measure for combating CO2 emissions but the notion that humanity can simply plant its way out of the climate crisis has attracted a fair amount of scepticism. Poorly conceived tree planting projects have also been shown doing more harm than good as they can damage existing ecosystems and even reduce biodiversity. And, certainly, for reforestation projects to be credible rather than greenwashing there’s a lot more that needs to happen than just digging a few holes in the ground and sticking saplings in them. So Ecosia’s brand refresh looks like an attempt to not only brush up a rather dated look but also underscore that it’s very much not one of the tokenistic greenwashers.

Its search ad profits have funded the planting of some 150 million trees to date — and it touts high survival rates, noting its approach involves co-designing projects with local partners; use of local tree species (its portfolio consists of 900+ different species which includes 30+ on the endangered species list); and the monitoring of trees for a minimum of three years using satellite technology, geo-tagging, photographic evidence and field visits, to track survival.

The branding refresh flags this focus on tree biodiversity — with 12 tree icons modelled on native species displayed in the product to spotlight the location of its projects.

Ecosia map of tree planting projects

Image credits: Ecosia

Ecosia also describes its projects as varied in scope, with a purpose that’s tailored to the local community and ecosystem — such as in India, where it works with an organisation run by women in West Bengal, called Soceo, to plant fruit trees that provide a reliable source of income for them and their families. Point being that trees will only survive in a context where they are valued by the local community.

The search engine recently appointed its first ever chief product officer, Michael Metcalf, who suggests technology to support and enhance its partnering process is in the works. “There are more innovations there to come,” he told us, adding: “There are probably going to be technology stories there in the future as well in terms of how to better use technology and satellite imaging and things like that.”

When asked about the problems linked to tree plantations he agrees monocultures do more harm than good — but Ecosia emphasizes that the projects it supports are not creating plantations but are rather planting native tree species — “with an approach that focuses on right tree, right place, to restore biodiversity hotspots”, as it puts it.

“We’re doing this all over the world with lots of organizations that are aligned with our values, and one of our values is biodiversity,” Metcalf adds of its tree planting projects. “It’s also making sure that they are working with community members so that the community is bought into the experience. You can just go plant trees on a hill in Africa, for example, it won’t work. It’s not sustainable.”

Ecosia also isn’t planting trees for carbon offsetting — another measure that’s frequently framed as climate action but has been extensively criticized as greenwashing.

“We’re not selling trees to people who are trying to do offsets,” emphasizes Metcalf. “We’re investing in communities, we’re investing in trees as a way to make a permanent change. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve moved from a three year commitment to a 20 year commitment — so it’s different when you’re in this for a financial gain… Because we have this really unique model where we basically are fuelling this impact team to go out there and plant trees.”

The climate action opportunity

Ecosia has more developments in the works as it scales usage. This summer it’ll be launching a Climate Pledge Rating which will see it apply a letter rating to 20 of the most-searched companies (including the likes of Amazon, Meta and Spotify) that will involve displaying a verdict on these organisations’ commitment to climate action — and could result in certain tech giants having their features ruffled.

Metcalf didn’t have much detail on how the rating system will work but he said Ecosia is working with the Technische Universität Berlin to base the system off the open climate commitments of each company against the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He said the general idea is to encourage others to take more action to reduce their impact on the climate.

An existing Ecosia feature — where the search engine displays a leaf icon alongside search results of “planet-friendly websites”, to help its users make more sustainable choices — has also been substantially expanded to include over 6,500 organizations, up from a few hundred per Metcalf.

That feature makes use of climate rating audits published by institutions such as B Corp Climate Collective, Hilfswerft, Economy for the Common Good, Climate Accountability Institute, according to an Ecosia spokesman.

Another incoming update Metcalf mentions is a (much requested) dark mode feature — slated for launch this fall.

“The huge opportunity [in] front of us is to help guide our user base,” he told TechCrunch. “We have a huge user base we know that they’re interested in climate change. They’re not all equally interested but they want to do something — they’ve bothered to switch the browser, they’ve bothered to switch their search, they’ve bothered to download the app and install the extension so we know that there’s an opportunity to do more with them. And to help educate them.”

“We’re going to keep doubling down on green search. And we’re going to keep just really making our user experience better,” he also told us. “I think the brand is the first step in that direction and the big preview here is we’re the same company we were before but we see a big opportunity to have a greater impact. And that’s what we want — we want to really unleash a lot of the energy that’s sitting there with our users. We have fantastic users. We know that they’ve got energy and so we really want to unleash that… We’re 100% aligned with our users in the fact that we want to do more to address climate change and the climate crisis.”

In a further step, Ecosia will shortly be launching a $250,000 fund to support Berlin-based businesses that raise awareness on environmental or climate issues or promote sustainable lifestyles.

It’s not its first foray into funding other businesses to take climate friendly action: It recently announced it’s started ploughing a portion of its profits into supporting green energy in its home market of Germany — principally by investing millions of euros into Zolar‘s network of solar cell installers.

Last fall it also launched the €350 million WorldFund to back climate-focused startups — and has gone on to invest in startups including plant-based steak startup Juicy Marbles; tree-planting fintech TreeCard; and cocoa-free chocolate alternative Qoa.

“We want to do more to address climate change and the climate crisis,” added Metcalf. “We’re still going to plant trees, we’re still going to have great partnerships, we still have the WorldFund that’s investing in climate negative companies but I think for me, as a product officer, what’s exciting it we have a huge opportunity with tens of millions of users to do more.

“Search is a utility — people go there, they type something in a box, there’s some text, people click on ads every so often, hopefully we get the ads right and they go somewhere. But I think when we are able to sprinkle a little bit of green along that path, along the user’s journey, and help make better decisions and educate them a bit I think that’s the start of something much bigger and much more important.”

Germany’s Zolar grabs $105M on soaring demand for solar energy

Berlin-based Zolar has bagged €100 million (~$105M) in Series C funding to expand its supplier network for small solar systems to meet rising demand for clean energy.

Germany is particularly exposed to the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine as it remains heavily dependent on Russian gas imports — meaning consumers there face soaring gas bills.

And while the country’s political leaders remain under huge pressure to find ways to quickly migrate to alternative energy sources to stop sending money to Putin’s regime, German householders don’t appear to be hanging around: Zolar says enquiries about installing solar systems have more than quadrupled this year — following rising energy prices.

Its Series C round is led by US investor Energy Impact Partners (EIP); and GIC, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. Existing investors, including Inven Capital, Heartcore Capital, Statkraft Ventures and Pirate Impact Capital, also participated.

The startup’s pitch is it’s democratizing access to solar energy and reducing complexity for consumers — by offering an online configurator it says is unique in the industry which provides homeowners with an easier way to buy customized solar installations online, or lease them for a small monthly fee.

The 2016-founded business had raised €59M prior to this raise, per Crunchbase. Its network of small solar installers also recently benefitted from $23M in support from eco-focused search engine, Ecosia, which announced in March that it would be funnelling a portion of the profits it generates from search ads into clean energy locally, in addition to planting trees, to help accelerate Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Add €100M now — and Zolar looks well positioned to help many more consumers make the switch to clean energy.

To meet what it describes as “unprecedented” demand for solar from German households, Zolar says it will be substantially expand its Craftship Partner Network of currently 500 local craft businesses — to 3,000 by 2025 to increase installation capacity for solar energy.

It also plans to use the Series C funds to open a training centre this year to tackle the renewable sector’s skills gap and train workers in a qualified fast-track process to meed demand for the energy turnaround.

The investment will also fund the roll out of new digital energy products — with Zolar giving the example of a smart control feature which will enable its app to recognize the best time to charge an electric car and start doing so automatically.

“Among others the company’s app will be expanded to include an energy management system and a dynamic electricity tariff,” it writes in a press release. “The app will intelligently control the solar power supply of homeowners while maximising their energy independence and cost savings.”

Commenting in a statement, Alex Melzer, CEO and founder, added: “Our goal is to supply 10M households in Europe with either a solar system or renewable energy by 2030. The climate crisis, energy security issues and the rising cost of fossil fuels mean we must move very quickly. By offering a fully digital experience and making it as easy as possible to get started and use solar energy, we help people go green, become energy independent and save costs.”

“There are 16 million roofs on single and two-family homes in Germany. More than 14 million of them are still without solar systems. Putting solar panels on these houses will drive Germany’s independence from coal, gas and oil,” he also noted.

In further supporting statements, Zolar’s investors underscored the role that rising demand for solar energy can play in helping humanity tackle the climate crisis and have a chance of a sustainable future.

Matthias Dill, managing partner Europe at EIP, said: “The demand for green energy will steeply accelerate in the world’s efforts to a net-zero future. Climate tech will drive the modern economy accelerating the transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Our investment in zolar is part of our mission to support startups worldwide that are resolutely driving the path to a sustainable future.”

“Our investment into Zolar is a testament of GIC’s support of green innovation and the clean energy transition. During the coming decades, climate change will define investments speeding up the carbon transition. Zolar helps homeowners to significantly reduce their carbon emissions, which is vital to the global decarbonisation efforts,” added Choo Yong Cheen, chief investment officer of Private Equity at GIC.

Ecosia has started ploughing search ads profit into green energy

Not-for-profit search engine Ecosia has started funnelling a portion of the profits it generates from serving ads against users’ searches into startups in the renewable energy space.

This is in addition to the €350M WorldFund which Ecosia recently incubated and launched last year to back climate-focused startups.

To be clear, Ecosia is also continuing to fund tree-planting with search ads profits (an activity it’s best known for) — but the Berlin-based search engine told us it’s now making an “ongoing commitment” to green energy investment as a result of the energy crunch triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The initial focus for investment is on Germany which is particularly reliant on buying gas from Russia — meaning its economy is heavily exposed to the crisis in Ukraine.

The war has already created fresh impetus for the world to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables — layering an economic crisis on top of the climate crisis which could lead to a surge in demand for renewables.

Although fossil fuel interests have been quick to spin up a counter argument to try to block any rush toward green energy — lobbying for Western nations to increase their exploitation of oil and gas and, y’know, torch life on Earth even faster. So there’s no shortage of reasons for investors to cut checks for renewables like there’s no tomorrow.

Ecosia says it’s put up an initial $30M to fund startups and community energy initiatives — focusing its early investment on the supplier network of Berlin-based startup Zolar, a platform which links customers wanting to install solar systems with local planning and installation businesses to support the rollout of green energy to households across Germany.

Ecosia said it’s already invested $23M into small solar systems through Zolar’s local solar distribution network, alongside other renewable energy projects across the country.

“At the moment, we’re supporting renewable energy projects across Germany. Further investment into renewable energy will be likely as Ecosia evaluates community energy projects and pitches from founders and these may take place in other countries,” a spokesperson told us.

They added that Ecosia’s goal for the green energy investments is to encourage more businesses to invest in renewables and speed up the transition to renewables at a time when it has never been more pressing to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

“If you’re a company wanting to scale your investments into renewable energy beyond climate-neutral and need advice, or a founder or community project leader with a green energy idea that can make a difference in terms of reducing European reliance on fossil fuels, get in touch with our energy team,” it said, noting that chief operating officer, Wolfgang Oels, is heading up the initiative.

Ecosia suggested it’s looking to further diversify where it invests search ads profits to include regenerative agriculture in the future — although, for now, its focus remains on green energy projects.

Asked how the investments will be split between tree planting and renewable energy, Ecosia said there won’t be a formal split because it’ll depend on the calibre of applicants for the energy money — meaning the monthly split of profits will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The spokesperson further noted that Ecosia will publish the divide of profit spent in its monthly financial report — “as and when” investments are made (and as it has always done with tree planting).

Startups with a broader climate tech focus hoping to score backing are encouraged to pitch the broader WorldFund, where Ecosia’s founder, Christian Kroll, is a venture partner. So far, WorldFund has made investments into plant-based steak startup Juicy Marbles; tree-planting fintech TreeCard; and cocoa-free chocolate alternative Qoa, among others.

Juicy Marbles gets $4.5M to sizzle up plant-based steaks

Convincing meat eaters to adopt a climate-friendly diet might get a little easier thanks to Slovenian startup Juicy Marbles, which has come up with a way to create plant-based whole meat cuts, if that doesn’t sound too oxymoronic.

‘Fancy Plant Meat’ is its pithier pitch for a product that aims to provide a vegan alternative to eating a filet mignon steak or other ‘prime’ cuts of (animal) flesh.

The Ljubljana-based startup is announcing a $4.5 million in seed raise to get its first hunk of prime plant protein to market — starting with the aforementioned (vegan) filet mignon, which is slated for a Q1 2022 launch.

Why filet mignon? It says this type of cut best shows off its proprietary “marbling technology”. It’s also picked filet mignon because the cut is considered the “crown jewel” of (meat) steaks.

Plus, there is relatively little competition at the premium end of the fake meat market vs scores of players churning out less fancy/more chopped up alternative protein products such as burgers, sausages, bacon, chicken tenders etc. So going big and chunky is one way to stand out in the sizzling alternative protein space.

“We’ve decided to begin with the filet mignon because it is the ‘crown jewel’ of the steak world, and it showcases our marbling technology best — which we would say is our clear and defining selling proposition, before we move onto other whole-cuts,” Juicy Marbles tells TechCrunch.

“We want to be known for our sirloins, rumps, filets, tomahawks, wagyus, as well as for our filet mignons — not just the most expensive cuts long-term. Long-term, our view is that we want to make filet mignon more affordable and accessible, given the different economics of it being plant-based.”

What are you actually chowing down on when/if you bite into a Juicy Marbles filet mignon? The primary protein is soy — which the startup argues is both nutritious and environmentally sustainable.

“Wider issues with soy farming causing deforestation are solely related to our need to feed animal livestock — 97% of soy production goes to animal feed, and if all of our meat was plant-based all the negative effects of soy farming would simply disappear,” it suggests, adding: “As a crop to feed humans, much less dense land-usage would be required for soya for purely human consumption – likely less than a third of the farming land currently required.”

Soya is also versatile, with Juicy Marbles noting that it can be eaten in all sorts of ways — from fresh to dried, plain, sprouting, ground, fermented, as curd, as a sauce, in soup, as a dessert or a drink etc — and, thus, by being a “soya-centric food company” it will therefore have greater flexibility in what it can cook up.

Concepts in the works include a soy-based tuna steak, for example. (Albeit, it would not be first to market with an animal-free tuna substitute; see, for e.g., YC-backed Kuleana.)

“Our business is based around the concept of protein texture — this is the defining factor that draws people to steak, when compared to a cheaper cut. In the plant-based meat vertical, there has not been as much innovation in the whole cuts space, and no one has come close to inventing a steak that resembles anything high-end,” it also tells us. “Given the need to decarbonise/offer a plant-based alternative in this space as well, we believe this is an immense opportunity untapped by our bigger rivals.”

A Juicy Marbles plant-based filet mignon cut being prepared for cooking

Image Credits: Juicy Marbles

“If you look at the plant-based products out there, the offers are currently limited to cheaper cuts — for example, the burger, or sausages, or bacon — there are also chunks, i.e. chicken tenders or tins of tuna, but there are no whole-cuts,” it adds.

Juicy Marbles is keeping the lid on exactly how it’s able to produce such large slaps of fake meat (claiming “numerous big food corporations snooping around” trying to figure out its protein marbling tech).

Although it says it will be more transparent in time — once it’s able to ensure its IP is protected.

It does specify that its plant steaks are not grown in a lab or 3D printed, saying it’s using its own patent-pending 3D assembly technology — which it claims enables it to create “premium, A5 grade cuts of meat, with full control over the shape, texture, marbling, flavours, aromas and nutrition”.

Of course the proof of all those claims will be in the eating. But Juicy Marbles suggests meat eaters should prepare to be wowed — both by the “high-level marbling effect” and “bold, rich flavour”.

And also by a price-tag that, at launch, will achieve “parity” with an “average-priced” filet mignon — and which it says will shrink so that the cost per steak will ultimately (“within 2-3 years”) be akin to paying for a more conventional cut of meat.

On the added benefits front, Juicy Marbles points out that plant-based steaks use non-saturated fats and are low in sodium vs meat equivalents — so there may be health reasons to consider switching to plant-based steaks (y’know, if the future of life on Earth isn’t a big enough reason).

Its seed round is led by tree-planting search engine Ecosia‘s new World Fund— a €350 million fund targeting startups building tech that can help decarbonize the planet whose launch we covered last month. (Juicy Marbles is World Fund’s first investment.)

Commenting in a statement, Danijel Visevic, general partner at the fund, said: “There has been a seismic shift in recent years towards plant-based alternatives, driven by a generation who want to make a real difference to the planet and their health. However, so often they’re met with poor substitutes, or they resist going fully plant-based because they’re not ready to give up on little luxuries, like whole cut meats. The team at Juicy Marbles acutely understands this. Their realistic and considered approach, combined with their technology — and appetites! — has seen them finally crack a major piece of the plant-based puzzle. We’re excited to join them and witness just how much of an impact they’re due to make in the months and years to come.”

Other investors in the round are Agfunder, along with a number of angel investors from Y Combinator and Fitbit.

Juicy Marbles says the seed funding will be used to scale production so it can launch its first plant-based steaks into the retail market.

It’s planning to sell to supermarkets, not just artisanal grocers and restaurants. But says direct to consumer sales will be limited to special offers only owing to the complexity of producing “planet-responsible” packaging for shipping perishable goods to individual consumers.

It’s also planning to expand its team and further beef up R&D efforts, including on developing new cuts.

“All of it is a learning cycle, so with the next round we can set up a gigafactory of plant meat to scale operations and further reduce the price of plant-based meat,” it adds.

And in case you’re curious, the founding team — Luka Sinček, Maj Hrovat, Tilen Travnik and Vladimir Mićković — consists of both vegans and meat eaters.

Google rivals call on EU to set rules for search engine preference menus

Four search engine rivals to Google have called on European Union lawmakers to address the tech giant’s continued dominance of the market by setting rules for search engine preference menus, arguing that the tech giant’s ability to set damaging defaults is continuing to limit how easily consumers can switch to a non-Google alternatives.

In an open letter today, the non-tracking search engines DuckDuckGo and Qwant, along with tech-for-good focused Lilo and tree-planting not-for-profit Ecosia, urge the region’s lawmakers to go further to tackle platform giants’ market power.

“The DMA [Digital Markets Act] urgently needs to be adapted to prevent gatekeepers from suppressing search engine competition,” they write. “Specifically, the DMA should enshrine in law a requirement for a search engine preference menu that would effectively ban Google from acquiring default search access points of the operating systems and the browsers of gatekeepers. Moreover, the DMA should ensure that, in addition to selecting their preferred search default in initial onboarding, consumers are able to one-click switch at any time via prompts from competing search engine apps or websites. These actions would finally lead to significant implications for competition in the search engine market and ensure there is real consumer choice online.”

The Commission presented the Digital Markets Act at the end of last year — proposing a fixed set of ex ante rules for so-called Internet “gatekeepers” with the aim of ensuring that these intermediating Internet giants cannot abuse their power to crush competitors and squeeze consumers.

However the four Google search rivals say the proposed legislation doesn’t currently contain any measured that will help break the tech giant’s continued dominance of search in Europe (where it has around 93%) — hence their call for EU lawmakers to make amendments to add binding rules for search preference screens so that consumers always have an effortless ability to switch their default search engine choice, whether on mobile or desktop.

While the Commission was responsible for the original draft of the DMA, the EU’s other core institutions — the European Parliament and Member States, via the EU Council — have to agree on the details so negotiations over the exact shape of the regulation are continuing.

We welcome the Commission’s goals with the Digital Markets Act (DMA) but the DMA fails to address the most acute barrier in search: Google’s hoarding of default positions,” the four search rivals also write. “Google would not have become the overall market gatekeeper they are today without years of locking up these defaults. If the DMA fails to address this fundamental issue, we believe the status quo will continue, leaving the root cause of this problem unchanged.”

Google has been contacted for comment on the claims.

Back in 2018, the EU’s competition commission fined Google $5BN over antitrust abuses in how it operates its Android smartphone platform.

Following that intervention the tech giant introduced a regional search preference screen that was shown on set-up of a new Android smartphone in Europe. However Google quickly implemented a sealed bids auction model that required rivals to pay it (and outbid each other) to appear in one of the available slots which competitors immediately decried it as unfair and non-transparent.

Some three years later, following another intervention by the Commission — and after absolutely no dent in Google’s search marketshare in Europe — the tech giant finally announced it would drop the auction model, replacing it with a choice screen that displays eligible search rivals without requiring a fee.

But, again, rivals quickly pointed out continuing limitations with Google’s ‘remedy’ — such as the fact it only applies to mobile devices, not to users of Google’s browser Chrome on desktop devices; and the fact that Android users are only shown the choice screen on set-up or at a factory reset, so most of the time they use a device they do not see it.

DuckDuckGo, for example, has been loudly pressing the case for a ‘truly fair’ search choice that only requires one click for consumers to switch — not the 15+ clicks it says it takes to switch default search engine on an Android device currently at any other point after initial set up (or a factory reset).

Using such dark patterns to lock in self-preferencing defaults is something that should be proscribed by EU law, the search rivals argue.

“Google-imposed limitations make it hard for consumers to adopt other search engines, despite the Commission’s antitrust decision,” they argue. “Like MEP Yon-Courtin proposed in her draft report for the Economic Affairs committee, we believe a properly-designed preference menu should be mandated more broadly.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission for comment on the call for dedicated search preference screen rules to be baked into the DMA and will update this report with any response.

Where’s the remedy?

The European Commission has — for years — shied away from imposing specific remedies on Google, despite a string of antitrust enforcements. Instead EU lawmakers have typically said it is up to Google to figure out exactly how to comply with its various orders to cease infringements in areas like product search, search ad brokering and Android.

The result of such a hands-off approach by the EU’s executive is that Google has been able to find ways to maintain its dominance of key strategic markets like search — in spite of a string of high profile antitrust enforcements in Europe.

It’s an uncomfortable record for the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, who has carved out a reputation as the ‘iron lady’ willing to take on Big Tech — yet whose enforcements in the digital sphere haven’t actually moved the needle on platform giants’ market share. (Nor blocked Google from continued consolidation.)

However some EU Member States are starting to take a much more hands on approach to reigning in big tech’s market abuse which looks like it will have an impact.

France’s competition authority, for example, recently extracted a series of interoperability requirements from Google in a case related to self-preferencing of its adtech.

While Germany’s Federal Cartel Office started this year armed with beefed-up powers to impose ex ante remedies on digital giants that are deemed to have substantial market power. It’s now in the process of assessing whether Google — and a number of other tech giants — meet that bar. If it finds they do it looks eager to get to work setting pre-emptive rules for how they can operate in Germany.

Outside the EU, the UK is also reforming domestic competition rules to clip Big Tech’s wings. It’s in the process of shaping an ex ante regime for digital giants with what it describes as “strategic market status” — that, unlike the Commission’s approach with the DMA, won’t be one-sized fits all.

Instead the UK has said it wants to tailor rules to the specific business — which would give its regulators more leeway to, for example, impose a search preference menu remedy on a firm like Google if they decide such a step is necessary.

The Commission’s centralized single set of rules for Big Tech does, therefore, look like it could end up being a weak tool in the face of extremely well resourced ‘innovators’ who have years of experience building and iterating services that are designed to eliminate friction and topple barriers to greater scale.

The EU’s executive risks being caught flat-footed on the issue of tech antitrust at a time when lawmakers all around the world are fired up and active on the issue — from China to the US.

It’s also interesting to note how, in the wake of a very bad week for (another tech giant:) Facebook, including Congressional testimony by the latest tech whistleblower, Francis Haugen, EU commissioners were falling over themselves to tweet about their “urgency” to tackle Big Tech…

Antitrust chief Vestager also tweeted in the wake of the global Facebook outage — which was also an Instagram and a WhatsApp outage, since all three social services run on the same infrastructure, all being owned by Facebook — with the EU’s EVP saying the episode demonstrated the need for “alternatives and choices in the tech market”.

Given that headline anti-consolidation message, EU citizens might be forgiven for asking why Vestager’s department hasn’t blocked a single tech acquisition — including Google’s recent gobbling of health tech company Fitbit? How exactly does Vestager propose to support startups and alternatives in gaining the necessary scale to challenge platform giants?

Sadly her tweet didn’t contain any solutions — so the search for a remedy goes on.

It also remains to be seen where the Commission’s next Google antitrust investigation will go.

This summer the bloc’s executive confirmed it was looking into the tech giant’s adtech — lagging antitrust interventions already been taken elsewhere in the region, including in the UK and France.

As for Google, the tech giant has been busy fighting the Commission’s existing antitrust enforcements against it.

Last week its lawyers were up in court for their appeal against the Commission’s $5BN Android antitrust fine — claiming that penalty was based on flawed calculations, was not “appropriate” and that it had not had any anti-competitive intent.


Google ditches pay-to-play Android search choice auction for free version after EU pressure

Google is ditching a massively unpopular auction format that underpins an choice screen it offers in the European Union, it said today. Eligible search providers will be able to freely participate.

The auction model was Google’s ‘remedy’ of choice — following the 2018 EU $5BN antitrust enforcement against Android — but rivals have always maintained it’s anything but fair, as we’ve reported previously (here, here, here, for eg).

The Android choice screen presents users in the region with a selection of search engines to choose as a default at the point of device set up (or factory reset). The offered choices depend on sealed bids made by search engine companies bidding to pay Google to win one of three available slots.

Google’s own search engine is a staple ‘choice’ on the screen regardless of EU market.

The pay-to-play model Google devised is not only loudly hated by smaller search engine players (including those with alternative business models, such as the Ecosia tree-planting search engine), but it been entirely ineffectual at restoring competitive balance in search marketshare so it’s not surprising Google has been forced to ditch it.

The Commission had signalled a change might be coming, with Bloomberg reporting in May remarks by the EU’s competition chief, Margrethe Vesager, that it was “actively working on making” Google’s Android choice screen for search and browser rivals work. So it evidently heard the repeated cries of ‘foul’ and ‘it’s not working, yo!’. And — finally — it acted.

However, framing its own narrative, Google writes that it’s been in “constructive discussions” with EU lawmakers for years about “how to promote even more choice on Android devices, while ensuring that we can continue to invest in, and provide, the Android platform for free for the long term”, as it puts it.

It also seems to be trying to throw some shade/blame back at the EU — writing that it only introduced what it calls a “promotional opportunity” (lol) “in consultation with the Commission”. (Ergo, ‘don’t blame us gov, blame them!’)

In another detail-light paragraph of its blog, Google says it’s now making “some final changes” — including making participation free for “eligible search providers” — after what it describes as “further feedback from the Commission”

“We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen. These changes will come into effect from September this year on Android devices,” it adds.

The planned changes raise new questions — such as what criteria it will be using to determine eligibility; and will Google’s criteria be transparent or, like the problematic auction, sealed from view? And how many search engines will be presented to users? More than the current four, that’s clear.

Where Google’s own search engine will appear in the list will also be very interesting to see, as well as the criteria for ranking all the options (marketshare? random allocation?).

Google’s blog is mealy mouthed on any/all such detail — but the Commission gave us a pretty good glimpse when we asked (see their comment below).

It still remains to seen whether any other devilish dark pattern design details will appear when we see the full implementation.

Update: More details on how the choice screen will work can be found here — including some details on eligibility where Google says vertical search engines won’t be able to participate; only general search engines can. It will also weed out multiple search brands owned by the same entity, with only one able to appear. Companies that syndicate Google’s search results and ads also won’t be eligible.

It’s worth noting that it’s not in Google’s gift to claim these changes are “final”. EU regulators are responsible for monitoring antitrust compliance — so if fresh complaints flow they will be duty bound to listen and react.

In one response to Google’s auction U-turn, pro-privacy search player DuckDuckGo was already critical — but more on the scope than the detail.

Founder Gabriel Weinberg pointed out that not only is the switch three years too late but Google should also be applying it across all platforms (desktop and Chrome too), as well as making it seamlessly easy for Android users to switch default, rather than gating the choice screen to set-up and/or factory reset (as we’ve reported before).

Another long-time critic of the auction model, tiny not-for-profit Ecosia, was jubilant that its fight against the search behemonth has finally paid off.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Christian Kroll said: “This is a real life David versus Goliath story — and David has won. This is a momentous day, and a real moment of celebration for Ecosia. We’ve campaigned for fairness in the search engine market for several years, and with this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market. Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

The Commission, meanwhile, confirmed to TechCrunch that it acted after a number of competitors raised concerns over the auction model — with a spokeswoman saying it had “discussed with Google means to improve that choice screen to address those concerns”.

“We welcome the changes introduced by Google to the choice screen. Being included on the choice screen will now be free for rival search providers,” she went on. “In addition, more search providers will be included in the choice screen. Therefore, users will have even more opportunities to choose an alternative.”

The Commission also offered a little more detail of how the choice screen will look come fall, saying that “on almost all devices, five search providers will be immediately visible”.

“They will be selected based on their market share in the user’s country and displayed in a randomised order which ensures that Google will not always be the first. Users will be able to scroll down to see up to seven more search providers, bringing the total search providers displayed in the choice screen to 12.”

“These are positive developments for the implementation of the remedy following our Android decision,” the spokeswoman added.

So it will certainly be very interesting indeed to see whether this Commission-reconfigured much bigger and more open choice screen helps move the regional need on Google’s search engine market share.

Interesting times indeed!

Europe’s Android ‘choice’ screen keeps burying better options

It’s been over a year since Google begun auctioning slots for a search engine ‘choice’ screen on Android in Europe, following a major antitrust intervention by the European Commission back in 2018. But despite hitting Google with a record-breaking fine over two years ago almost nothing has changed.

The tech giant’s search marketshare remains undented and the most interesting regional search alternatives are being priced out of a Google-devised ‘remedy’ that favors those who can pay the most to be listed as an alternative to its own dominant search engine on smartphones running Google’s Android OS.

Quarterly choice screen winners have been getting increasingly same-y. Alternatives to Google are expecting another uninspiring batch of ‘winners’ to drop in short order.

The results for Q1 2021 were dominated by a bunch of ad-targeting search options few smartphone users would likely have heard of: Germany’s GMX; California-based; and Puerto Rico-based PrivacyWall (which is owned by a company whose website is emblazoned with the slogan “100% programmatic advertising”) — plus another, more familiar (ad)tech giant’s search engine (Microsoft-owned) Bing.

Lower down the list: The Russian ‘Google’ — Yandex — which won eight slots. And a veteran player in the Czech search market,, which bagged two.

On the ‘big loser’ side: Non-tracking search engine, DuckDuckGo — which has been standing up for online privacy for over a decade yet won only one slot (in Belgium). It’s been come to be almost entirely squeezed out vs winning a universal slot in all markets at the start of the auction process.

Tree-planting not-for-profit search engine, Ecosia, was almost entirely absent in the last round too: Gaining only one slot on the screen showed to Android users in Slovenia. Yet back in December Ecosia was added as a default search option with Safari on iOS, iPadOS and macOS — having grown its global usage to more than 15 million users.

While another homegrown European search option — which has a privacy-focus — France’s Qwant, went home with just one slot. And not in its home market, either (in tiny Luxembourg).

If Europe’s regulators had fondly imagined that a Google-devised ‘remedy’ for major antitrust breaches they identified would automagically restore thriving competition to the Android search market they should feel rudely awakened indeed. The bald fact is Google’s marketshare has not even been scratched, let alone dented.

Statista data for Google’s search market share on mobile (across both Android and iOS; the latter where the tech giant pays Apple billions of dollars annually to be set as the default on iPhones) shows that in February 2021 its share in Europe stood at 97.07% — up from 96.92% in July 2018 when the Commission made the antitrust ruling.

Yes, Google has actually gained share running this ‘remedy’.

By any measure that’s a spectacular failure for EU competition enforcement — more than 2.5 years after its headline grabbing antitrust decision against Android.

The Commission has also been promoting a goal of European tech sovereignty throughout the period Google has been running this auction. President Ursula von der Leyen links this overrarching goal to her digital policy programming.

On the measure of tech sovereignty the Android choice screen must be seen as a sizeable failure too — as it’s not only failed to support (most) homegrown alternatives to Google (another, Cliqz, pulled the plug on its search+browser effort entirely last year, putting part of the blame on the region’s political stakeholders for failing to understand the need for Europe to own its own digital infrastructure) — but it’s actively burying the most interesting European alternatives by forcing them to compete against a bunch of ad-funded Google clones.

(And if Brave Search takes off it’ll be another non-European alternative — albeit, one that will have benefitted from expertise and tech that was made-in-Europe… )

This is because the auction mechanism means only companies that pay Google the most can buy themselves a chance at being set as a default option on Android.

Even in the rare instances where European players shell out enough money to appear in the choice list (which likely means they’ll be losing money per search click) they most often do so alongside other non-European alternatives and Google — further raising the competitive bar for selection.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nor was it wasn’t initially; Google started with a choice screen based on marketshare.

However it very quickly switched to a pay to play model — throttling at a stroke the discoverability of alternative business models that aren’t based on exploiting user data (or, indeed, aren’t profit-driven in Ecosia’s case; as it uses ad-generated revenue to fund tree planting with a purely environmental goal).

Such alternatives say they typically can’t afford to win Google’s choice screen auctions. (It’s worth noting that those who do participate in the game are restricted in what they can say as Google requires they sign an NDA.)

Clearly, it’s no coincidence that the winners of Google’s auction skew almost entirely to the track and target side of the tracks, where its own business sits; all data-exploiting business models bandied together. And then, from a consumer point of view, why would you not pick Google with such a poorly and artificially limited ‘choice’ on offer — since you’re generally only being offered weaker versions of the same thing?

Ecosia tells TechCrunch it’s now considering pulling out of the auction process altogether — which would be a return to its first instinct; which was to boycott the auction before saying it felt it had to participate. A few months playing Google’s pay-to-play ‘no choice’ (as Ecosia dubs the auction) game has cemented its view that the system is stacked against genuine alternatives.  

Over two auction rounds when Ecosia has only ended up winning the one slot each time it says it’s seen no positive effect on user numbers. A decision on whether or not to withdraw entirely will be taken after the results of the next auction process are revealed, it said. (The next round of results are expected shortly, in early March.)

“We definitely realized it’s less and less ‘fun’ to play the game,” Ecosia founder Christian Kroll told us. “It’s a super unfair game — where it’s not only ‘David against Goliath’ but also Goliath gets to choose the rules, gets a free ticket, he can change the rules of game if he likes to. So it’s not amusing for us to participate in that.

“We’ve been participating now for nine months and if you look at overall marketshare in Europe nothing has changed. We don’t know the results yet of this round but I assume also nothing will change — the usual suspects will be there again… Most of the options that you see there now are not interesting to users.”

“Calling it a ‘choice’ screen is still a little bit ironic if you remove all the interesting choices from the screen. So the situation is still the same and it becomes less and less fun to play the game and at some point I think we might make the decision that we’re not going to be part of the game anymore,” he added.

Other alternative search engines we spoke to are continuing to participate for now — but all were critical of Google’s ‘pay-to-play’ model for the Android ‘choice screen’.

DuckDuckGo founder, Gabriel Weinberg, told us: “We are bidding, but only to help further expose to the European Commission how flawed Google’s rigged process really is, in hopes they will help more actively take a role in reforming it into something that actually works for consumers. Due to our strict privacy policy, we expect to be eliminated, same as last time.”

He pointed to a blog post the company put out last fall, denouncing the “fundamentally flawed” auction model — and saying that “whole piece still stands”. In the blog post the company wrote that despite being profitable since 2014 “we have been priced out of this auction because we choose to not maximize our profits by exploiting our users”.

“In practical terms, this means our commitment to privacy and a cleaner search experience translates into less money per search. This means we must bid less relative to other, profit-maximizing companies,” DuckDuckGo went on, adding: “This EU antitrust remedy is only serving to further strengthen Google’s dominance in mobile search by boxing out alternative search engines that consumers want to use and, for those search engines that remain, taking most of their profits from the preference menu.”

“This auction format incentivizes bidders to bid what they can expect to profit per user selection. The long-term result is that the participating Google alternatives must give most of their preference menu profits to Google! Google’s auction further incentivizes search engines to be worse on privacy, to increase ads, and to not donate to good causes, because, if they do those things, then they could afford to bid higher,” it also said then.

France’s Qwant has been similarly critical and it told us it is “extremely dissatisfied” with the auction — calling for “urgent modification” and saying the 2018 Commissio decision should be fully respected “in text and in spirit”.

“We are extremely dissatisfied with the auction system. We are asking for an urgent modification of the Choice Screen to allow consumers to find the search engine they want to use and not just the three choices that are only the ones that pay the most Google. We demand full respect for the 2018 decision, in text and in spirit,” said CEO Jean-Claude Ghinozzi.

“We are reviewing all options and re-evaluating our decision on a quarterly basis. In any case, we want consumers to be able to freely choose the search engine they prefer, without being limited to the only three alternative choices sold by Google. Consumers’ interests must always come first,” he added.

Russia’s Yandex confirmed it has participated in the upcoming Q2 auction. But it was also critical of Google’s implementation, saying it falls short of offering a genuine “freedom of choice” to Android users.

“We aim to offer high-quality and convenient search engine around the world. We are confident that freedom to select a search engine will lead to greater market competition and motivate each player to improve services. We don’t think that the current EU solution fully ensures freedom of choice for users, by only covering devices released from March 2020,” a Yandex spokeswoman said.

“There are currently very few such devices on the EU market in comparison with the total number of devices in users’ hands. It is essential to provide the freedom of choice that is genuine and real. Competition among service providers ultimately benefits users who will receive a better product.”

One newcomer to the search space — the anti-tracking browser Brave (which, as we mentioned above, just bought up some Cliqz assets to underpin the forthcoming launch of an-own brand Brave Search) — confirmed it will not be joining in at all.

“Brave does not plan to participate in this auction. Brave is about putting the user first, and this bidding process ignores users’ best interests by limiting their choices and selecting only for highest Google Play Store optimizing bidders,” a spokeswoman said.

“An irony here is that Google gets to profit off its own remedy for being found guilty of anti-competitive tying of Chrome into Android,” she added.

Asked about its strategy to grow usage of Brave Search in the region — outside of participation in the Android choice screen — she said: “Brave already has localized browsers for the European market, and we will continue to grow by offering best-in-class privacy showcased in marketing campaigns and referrals programs.”

Google’s self-devised ‘remedy’ followed a 2018 antitrust decision by the Commission — which led to a record-breaking $5BN penalty and an order to cease a variety of infringing behaviors. The tech giant’s implementation remains under active monitoring by EU antitrust regulators. However Kroll argues the Commission is essentially just letting Google buy time rather than fix the abusive behavior it identified.

“The way I see this at the moment is the Commission feels like the auction screen isn’t necessarily something that they’ve requested as a remedy so they can’t really force Google to change it — and that’s why they also maybe don’t see it as their responsibility,” he said. “But at the same time they requested Google to solve the situation and Google isn’t doing anything.

“I think they are also allowing Google to get the credit from the press and also from users that it seems like Google is doing something — so they are allowing Google to play on time… I don’t know if a real choice screen would be a good solution but it’s also not for me to decide — it’s up to the European Commission to decide if Google has successfully remedied the damage… and has also compensated some of the damage that it’s done and I think that has not happened at all. We can see that in the [marketshare] numbers that basically still the same situation is happening.”

“The whole thing is designed to remove interesting options from the screen,” he also argued of Google’s current ‘remedy’. “This is how it’s ‘working’ and I’m of course disappointed that nobody is stepping in there. So we’re basically in this unfair game where we get beaten up by our competitors. And I would hope for some regulator to step in and say this is not how this should go. But this isn’t happening.

“At the moment our only choice is to hang in there but at the moment if we really see there is no effect and there’s also no chance that regulators will ever step in we still have the choice to completely withdraw and let Google have its fun but without us… We’re not only not getting anything out of the [current auction model] but we’re of course also investing into it. And there are also restrictions because of the NDA we’ve signed — and even those restrictions are a little bit of a pain. So we have all the negative effects and don’t get any benefits.”

While limited by NDA in what he can discuss about the costs involved with participating in the auction, Kroll suggested the winners are doing so at a loss — pursuing reach at the expense of revenue.

“If you look at the bids from the last rounds I think with those bids it would be difficult for us to make money — and so potentially others have lost money. And that’s exactly also how this auction is designed, or how most auctions are designed, is that the winners often lose money… so you have this winner’s curse where people overbid,” he said.

“This hasn’t happened to us — also because we’re super careful — and in the last round we won this wonderful slot in Slovenia. Which is a beautiful country but again it has no impact on our revenues and we didn’t expect that to happen. It’s just for us to basically participate in the game but not risk our financial health,” he added. “We know that our bids will likely not win so the financial risk [to Ecosia as it’s currently participating and mostly losing in the auction] is not that big but for the companies who actually win bids — for them it might be a different thing.”

Kroll points out that the auction model has allowed Google to continue harvesting marketshare while weakening its competitors.

“There are quite a few companies who can afford to lose money in search because they just need to build up marketshare — and Google is basically harvesting all that and at the same time weakening its competitors,” he argued. “Because competitors need to spend on this. And one element that — at least in the beginning when the auction started — that I didn’t even see was also that if you’re a real search company… then you’re building up a brand, you’re building up a product, you’re making all these investments and you have real users — and if you have those then, if there was really a choice screen, people would naturally choose you. But in this auction screen model you’re basically paying for users that you would have anyway.

“So it’s really putting those kind of companies at a disadvantage: DuckDuckGo, us, all kinds of companies who have a ‘real USP’. Also Lilo, potentially even Qwant as well if you have a more nationalist approach to search, basically. So all of those companies are put at an even bigger disadvantage. And that’s — I think — unfair.”

Since most winners of auction slots are, like Google, involved in surveillance capitalism — gathering data on search users to profit off of ad targeting — if anyone was banking on EU competition enforcement being able to act as a lever to crack open the dominant privacy-hostile business model of the web (and allow less abusive alternatives get a foot in the door) they must be sorely disappointed.

Better alternatives — that do not track consumers for ads; or, in the case of Ecosia, are on an entirely non-profit mission — are clearly being squeezed out.

The Commission can’t say it wasn’t warned: The moment the auction model was announced by Google rivals decried it as flawed, rigged, unfair and unsustainable — warning it would put them at a competitive disadvantage (exactly because they aren’t just cloning Google’s ‘track and target for ad profit model’).

Nonetheless, the Commission has so far shown itself unwilling or unable to respond — despite making a big show of proposing major new rules for the largest platforms which it says are needed to ensure they play fair. But that raises the question of why it’s not better-enforcing existing EU rules against tech giants like Google?

When we raised criticism of Google’s Android choice screen auction model with the Commission it sent us its standard set of talking points — writing that: “We have seen in the past that a choice screen can be an effective way to promote user choice”.

“The choice screen means that additional search providers are presented to users on start-up of every new Android device in every EEA country. So users can now choose their search provider of preference when setting up their newly purchased Android devices,” it also said, adding that it is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.

“We are therefore monitoring closely the implementation of the choice screen mechanism,” it added — a standard line since Google begin its ‘compliance’ with the 2018 EU decision. 

In a slight development, the Commission did also confirm it has had discussions with Google about the choice screen mechanism — following what it described as “relevant feedback from the market”. 

It said these discussions focused on “the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.

But with the clock ticking, and genuine alternatives to Google search being actively squeezed out of the market — leaving European consumers to be offered no meaningful choice to privacy-hostile search on Android — you do have to wonder what regulators are waiting for?

A pattern of reluctance to challenge tech giants where it counts seems to be emerging from Margrethe Vestager’s tenure at the helm of the competition department (and also, since 2019, a key shaper of EU digital policy).

Despite gaining a reputation for being willing to take on tech giants — and hitting Google (and others) with a number of headline-grabbing fines over the past five+ years — she cannot claim success in rebalancing the market for mobile search nor smartphone operating systems nor search ad brokering, in just the most recent Google cases.

Nonetheless she was content to green light Google’s acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit at the end of last year — despite a multitude of voices raised against allowing the tech giant to further entrench its dominance.

On that she argued defensively that concessions secured from Google would be sufficient to address concerns (such as a promise extracted from Google not to  use Fitbit data for ads for at least ten years).

But, given her record on monitoring Google’s compliance with a whole flush of EU antitrust rulings, it’s hard to see why anyone other than Google should be confident in the Commission’s ability or willingness to enforce its own mandates against Google. Complaints against how Google operates, meanwhile, just keep stacking up.

“I think they are listening,” says Kroll of the Commission. “But what I am missing is action.”


TreeCard raises $5.1M seed to plant trees as you spend

TreeCard, a U.K. yet-to-launch fintech offering a spending card made out of wood and the promise to fund reforesting via the interchange fees generated, has raised $5.1 million in seed funding. The round is led by EQT Ventures, with participation from Seedcamp and Episode 1.

Angel investors also backing the startup include Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless), Paul Forester (founder of Indeed) and Charlie Delingpole (founder of ComplyAdvantage). TreeCard says the funding will be used to hire talent, support the roll-out of its product across the U.K. and to expand into the U.S. and “key European markets”.

Aiming to become a “leading green finance brand”, TreeCard was founded in August 2020 by Thiel fellow Jamie Cox (who previously co-founded Cashew), Gary Wu and James Dugan. The team hit onto the idea of swapping loyalty points or cash back for tree planting, in a bid to create a fintech proposition with more societal impact.

Once signed up, you link the TreeCard app to your current bank accounts so you can begin routing your spending through the Mastercard-powered TreeCard. Purchases you then make — or, specifically, a portion of the card transaction fees your spending generates — is then put toward tree planting projects run by green search engine Ecosia, which is also a pre-seed investor in TreeCard.

“[At a] high level, the climate crisis is the biggest existential risk that humanity has faced in the last 200,000 years; we believe directing the flow of consumer finances is the most powerful way to affect change,” CEO Cox tells me. “We’re building a finance company that allows consumers to not just to do less damage with their spending, but to actively improve the world.

“We are building a free spending card that allows consumers to spend more responsibly. The card uses interchange to reforest as they spend and sophisticated analytics to help them identify healthy spending as well as destructive ones”.

Of course, consumer card interchange fees in the U.K./EU are very low compared to the U.S. Offering a spending card and account isn’t without overhead, so it isn’t clear how sustainable TreeCard could be on interchange revenue alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S., where generated fees are higher, is seen as a key launch market for the startup.

“Interchange fees in the U.S. are significantly higher than in the EU so this presents a sufficient revenue opportunity for us to perform our reforestation investments and cover marketing and management costs,” explains Cox. “In the EU we’re going to be partnering with an existing retail bank who will provide all our banking infrastructure for free. This will mean that, even though our interchange fee cut is lower, it will be sufficient to cover our costs in the EU. We will announce the name of the bank shortly”.

Meanwhile, early backer Ecosia is described by the TreeCard founder as its “mother” company. “They’re our closest partner and we’ll be working very closely with them as we grow,” Cox says. “They invested the first cheque into the company and will be doing all our tree planting for us. Ecosia’s marketing team is extremely experienced and they will be helping us use their search engine as a core channel for user acquisition over the next few years”.

Comments Tom Mendoza, deal partner at EQT Ventures: “TreeCard has the potential to become a leading green finance brand, going where no brand has gone before in creating a de facto platform for impactful financial management. At EQT Ventures, we’re increasingly aware of the environment and the impact that our investments have on the world around us, so we’re really excited to support the TreeCard team, who are actively working with the financial system to create a better future for the planet”.