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”.

Google’s “no choice” screen on Android isn’t working, says Ecosia — querying the EU’s approach to antitrust enforcement

Google alternative Ecosia is on a mission to turn search clicks into trees. The Berlin based not-for-profit reached a major milestone earlier this month, having used ad revenue generated by users of its privacy-sensitive search engine to plant more than 100 million trees across 25 countries worldwide — targeted at biodiversity hotspots.

However these good feels have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Ecosia has seen its monthly revenues slashed by half since COVID-19 arrived in Europe, with turnover falling from €2.6M in February to just €1.4M in June. It’s worried that its promise of planting a tree every 0.8 seconds is at risk.

It has also suffered a knock to regional visibility as a result of boycotting an auction process that Android OS maker Google has been running throughout this year, as a response to a 2018 Commission antitrust decision that found the tech giant had violated EU competition rules in how it operates the smartphone platform — including via conditions placed on phone makers to pre-load its own services (like Google search) as device defaults.

An auction process now determines which rival search engines appear on a search ‘choice screen’ Google began showing to Android users in Europe in the wake of the Commission decision. Currently, Google offers three paid slots via the auction to non-Google search engines. Android users setting up a new device always see Google’s own search engine as one of the four total options.

The tech giant’s rivals have consistently argued this ‘pay to play’ model is no remedy for its anti-competitive behavior with Android, the world’s dominant smartphone OS. Although most (including DuckDuckGo) felt forced to participate in its auction process from the get-go. Forgoing the most prominent route to the Android search market isn’t exactly a luxury most businesses could afford.

Ecosia, a not-for-profit, was the last major hold out. But now it says it’s been forced to end its boycott in a bid to remain competitive in the region. This means it will participate in the next auction round for the Android choice screen — scheduled for the beginning of Q4. If it wins any per country slots it will appear as a search choice option to those Android users in future, though likely not til next year given the length of the auction process.

It remains highly critical of Google’s pay-to-play model, arguing it’s no remedy for the antitrust violations identified by the Commission. It also laments that EU lawmakers are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to determining whether Google’s ‘remedy’ is actually restoring competition, given all the evidence to the contrary.

“The main reason why we boycotted the auction is because we think it’s highly unfair and anticompetitive,” says Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll, speaking to TechCrunch via video chat. “Not only do we think that fair competition shouldn’t be sold off in an auction but also the way the auction is designed basically makes sure that only the least interesting options can win.

“Since we have a business model where we use most of our revenues to plant trees we basically can’t really win in an auction model. If you’re already a search engine that’s quite well known… then you have a lot of cannibalization effects through this screen. So we’re basically paying for traffic that we would get for free anyway… So it’s just super unfair and anticompetitive.”

Kroll expresses emphatic surprise that the Commission didn’t immediately reject Google’s auction model for the choice screen — saying it seems as if they’ve learned nothing from the EU’s earlier intervention against Microsoft’s tying of its Internet Explorer browser with its dominant desktop OS, Windows. (In that case the saga ended after Microsoft agreed to implement a ballot screen offering a choice of up to 12 browsers, which paved the road for Google to later gain share with its own Chrome browser.)

For a brief initial period last year Google did offer a fee-less choice screen in Europe, pushing this out to existing Android devices — with search rivals selected based on their market popularity per country (which, in some markets, included Ecosia).

However the tech giant said then that it would be “evolving” its implementation over time. And a few months later an auction model was announced as incoming for new Android devices — with that ‘pay-to-play’ approach kicking off at the start of this year.

Search rivals including DuckDuckGo and Qwant immediately cried foul. Yet the response from the Commission has been to kick the can — with regulators offering platitudes that said they would “closely monitor”. They also claimed to be “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.

However the missing adjective in that statement is ‘fast’. Google rivals would argue that for a remedy to be effective it needs to happen really fast, like now — or, for some of them, the risk really is going out of business. After all, the Commission’s Android antitrust decision (which, yes, Google is appealing) already dates back two full years

“I find it very surprising that the European Commission hasn’t rejected [Google’s auction model] from the start because some of the key principles from what made the choice screen successful in the Microsoft case have just been completely disregarded and been turned around by Google to turn the whole concept of a choice screen to their advantage,” says Kroll. “We’re not even calling it the ‘choice screen’ internally, we just call it the ‘auction screen’. And since we’re now stopping to boycott we call it the ‘no choice screen’.”

“It’s Google’s way to give the impression that there’s free choice but there is no free choice,” he adds. “If Google’s objective here would be to create choice for the user then they would present the most interesting options, which are the search engines with the highest marketshares — so definitely us, DuckDuckGo and maybe some other players as well. But that’s not what they’re trying to do.”

Kroll points out that another German search rival to Google, Cliqz, had to pull the plug on its anti-tracking alternative at the start of this year — meaning there’s now one less homegrown anti-tracking rival to Google in play. And while Ecosia feels it has no choice but to participate in Google’s auction game Kroll says it also can’t know whether or not participating will result in Ecosia overpaying Google for leads that then mean it generates less revenue and can’t plant as many trees… Or, well, any trees if the worst were to happen.

(NB: Kroll was speaking to TechCrunch ahead of signing an NDA that Google requires participants of the auction to sign which puts a legal limit on what they can say about the process once they’re involved — which, in turn, is a problematic element that another European search rival, Qwant, has also complained is unfair… )

“We don’t have any choice left, other than to participate,” adds Kroll. “Because we want to have access to the Android platform. So basically Google has successfully bullied everyone to play to its own rules — and it’s a game where Google is not only the referee but also they get a free ticket and they are also players…

“Somehow Google magically convinced the public but I think also the European Commission that they need to generate revenue in an auction because they have so many costs through the Android development and so on. It is of course true that they have costs… but they are also generating massive profit through the deals that they then make with the device makers and those profits are not at all shared.”

Kroll points out that Google shells out a (reported) $12BN per year to be the default search engine in Safari on Apple’s iOS platform — even as it pays nothing to get in front of the vast majority of mobile searchers’ eyeballs via Android (and does the same with Chrome).

“If they would pay the same amount of money for those platform they would soon be bankrupt,” he argues. “So they are getting all this for free and they are also getting other benefits for free — like having the Play Store preinstalled, like having Google Maps preinstalled, YouTube preinstalled and so on — which are all revenue sources. But they’re not sharing any of those revenue. They just try to outsource all of the costs that they have to their competitors, which is I think very unfair.”

While Alphabet, Google’s parent entity, doesn’t break out Google Play revenue specifically from within a generic “advertising” bucket when it reports its financials, data from SensorTower for the first half of 2020 suggests it generated $17.3BN in Play Store revenue alone over this six-month period, up 21% year-over-year. And Play is just one of the moneyspinners Google derives via ‘free’ Android.

Since the Commission’s antitrust 2018 decision against Android Kroll argues that nothing has changed for search competitors like Ecosia which are trying to offer consumers a more interesting value exchange for their clicks.

“What Google is doing very successfully is they’re just playing on time,” he suggests. “Our competitor, Cliqz, already went bankrupt because of that. So the strategy seems to work really well for Google. And we also can’t afford to lose access to those platforms… I really hope that the European Commission will actually do something about this because it has been done successfully in the Microsoft case and we just need exactly the same.”

Kroll also flags DuckDuckGo’s design suggestions for “a fair choice screen” — which we covered here last year but which Google (and the Commission) have so far simply ignored.

He suspects regulators are waiting to see how the market looks in another year or more. But of course by then it may be too late to save more alternative search engines from a Cliqz-style demise, thereby further strengthening Google’s position. Which would obviously be the opposite of an antitrust remedy.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager already conceded last year that another of her interventions against the tech giant — the Google AdSense antitrust case — is an example of “enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition”. So if she’s not careful her record on failed remedies could dent her high profile reputation for being an antitrust chief who’s at least willing to take on tech giants. Where competition is concerned, it must be all about outcomes — or what are you even doing as claimed law ‘enforcers’?

“I always fear that the point might come when big corporates are more powerful than our public institutions and I’m wondering if this point isn’t already reached,” adds Kroll, positing that it’s not clear whether the EU — as an economic and political project now facing plenty of its own issues — will have enough resilience to be able to enforce its own competition law in the near future. So really his key point is: If not now, when? (Or, well, how?)

It’s certainly true that there’s a growing disconnect between what the Commission is saying around competition policy and digital markets — where it’s alive to the critique that regulatory interventions need to be able to move much faster if they’re to prevent monopoly power irreversibly tipping these markets (it’s currently consulting on whether to give itself greater powers of intervention) — and its hands-off approach to how to remedy market failure. tl;dr there’s no effective enforcement without effective remedies. So dropping the ball after the fact of a decision really defeats the whole operation.

Vestager clearly recognizes there’s a problem in the digital context — telling the EU parliament last year: “We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching”. (Albeit, still not committing to having much more far reaching remedies.) Yet in parallel she preaches ‘wait and see’ as her overarching philosophy — a policy ‘push-pull’ which seems to be preventing the unit from even entertaining taking on a more agile, active and iterative role in supporting markets towards actual restoration of competition. At least not before a lengthy consultation exercise which further kicks the can,

If EU lawmakers can’t learn the lessons from their own relatively recent digital antitrust history (Microsoft tying IE to Windows) to effectively enforce what is a pretty straightforwardly similar antitrust case (Google tying search & its other services to Android), you have to question why they think they need new antitrust tools to properly tackle digital monopolies now. Given they don’t seem able to effectively wield the tools they’ve already got.

It does rather look increasingly like the current crop of EU regulators have lost conviction — and/or fallen prey to risk aversion — in the face of platform power moves. (To wit: There are whispers the Commission is preparing to wave through Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, on paper-thin promises from Google, despite major concerns raised about privacy and increased data consolidation — which, if true, would again mean the Commission ignoring its own recent history of naively swallowing other similar tech giant claims.)

“My feeling is, what has happened in the Microsoft case… there was just somebody in the Commission crazy enough to say this is what the decision is and you have to do it… And maybe it just takes those kind of guts. That’s then maybe a political question. Is Vestager willing to really pick those battles?” asks Kroll.

“My feeling is if people really understand the situation then they would care but you actually need to do a little bit of explaining that it’s not good to have a dominant player that is in such an important sector like search, and that is basically shutting down the market for everybody else.”

Asked what his message is for the US lawmakers now actively eyeing antitrust concerns around Google — and indeed much of big tech — Kroll says: “I’m a fan of competition and I also admire Google; I think Google is a very clever company but I think there is a point reached where there’s so much concentration of power that it gets dangerous for society… We’ve been suffering quite a lot from all the dominance that Google has in the various sectors. There are just things that Google are doing that are obviously anticompetitive.”

One specific thing he suggests regulators take a close look at is how much money Google pays Apple to be the default search option on Safari. “It’s paying more money than it can actually afford to win the Safari search volume — that I think is very anticompetitive,” he argues. “They already own two-thirds of the market and they basically buy whatever’s left over so that they can just cement their dominance.

“The regulators should have a very close look at that and disallow Google to participate in any of those bids for default positions in other browsers in the future. I think that would even be beneficial for browsers because in the long term there would finally be competition for those spots again. Currently Google’s just winning them because they’re running out of options and there are not many other search providers left to choose from.”

He also argues they need to make Google repair “some of the damage they’ve done” — i.e. as a result of unfairly gaining marketshare — by enforcing what he calls “a really fair choice screen”; non-paid and based on relevance for users. And by doing so on Android and Chrome devices. 

“I think until a year ago if you visited with your Safari browser or Firefox browser then Google would recommend to install Chrome. And for me that’s a clear abuse of one dominant position to support another part of your company,” he argues. “Google needs to repair that and that needs to happen very quickly — because otherwise other companies might [go out of business].”

“We’re still doing okay but we have been hit heavily by corona and we have a huge loss in revenue. Other companies might be hit even worse, I don’t know. And we don’t have the same deep pockets that the big players have. So other companies might disappear if nothing’s done soon,” he adds. 

We reached out to Google and the European Commission for comment.

A Google spokesperson pointed us to its FAQ about the auction. In further remarks which they specified could not be directly quoted they claimed an auction is a fair and objective method of determining how to fill available slots, adding that the revenue generated via the auction helps Google continue to invest in developing and maintaining Android.

While a spokeswoman for the Commission told us it has been “discussing” the choice screen mechanism with Google, following what she described as “relevant feedback from the market, in particular in relation to the presentation and mechanics of the choice screen and to the selection mechanism of rival search providers”.

The spokeswoman also reiterated earlier comments, that the Commission is continuing to monitor Google’s choice screen implementation and is “committed to a full and effective implementation of the decision”.

However a source familiar with the matter said EU lawmakers view paid premium placement for a few cents as far superior to what Google was offering rivals before — i.e. no visibility at all — and thus take the view that that something is better than nothing.

Tree planting search engine Ecosia is getting a visibility boost in Chrome

Ecosia, a not-for-profit search engine which uses ad generated revenue to fund planting trees, is set to get a visibility boost in Chrome. A change Google is making to its chromium engine will see it added as a default search engine choice in up to 47 markets for the version 81 release of Google’s web browser.

Ecosia will soon be included on Chrome’s default search engine list in several major markets, including the UK, US, France and Germany — alongside the likes of Google Search, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!

It’s the first time the not-for-profit search engine will have appeared in Chrome’s default search engine choice list. And while users of Chrome can always navigate directly to Ecosia to search, or download an extension to search via it directly in the browser’s URL bar, those active steps require prior knowledge of the product. Whereas being listed as a default option in Chrome means Ecosia will be put in front of people who aren’t yet familiar with it.

The Berlin-based search engine said Google Chrome’s selection of default search engines is based on search engine popularity rankings in different markets.

The full list of markets where it will be offered as a choice in the v81 release is: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bahrain, Brunei, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Denmark, Ecuador, Spain, Faroe Islands, France, Guatemala, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Paraguay, Sweden, El Salvador, Taiwan, United States, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam.

The shift comes after what Ecosia said was a record year of usage growth for its search engine — with monthly active users rising from 8 million to 15 million during 2019.

The company dedicates 80% of advertising profits to funding reforestation projects in biodiversity hotspots around the world, and says it has planted 86 million+ trees since it was founded back in 2009 — a total it’s expecting will grow as a result of Google’s decision to include Ecosia as a default choice.

Commenting in a statement Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll said: “Ecosia’s growth over the last year shows just how invested users are in the fight against the climate crisis. Everywhere, people are weighing up the changes they can make to reduce their carbon footprint, including adopting technologies such as Ecosia. Our addition to Chrome will now make it even easier for users to help reforest delicate, at-risk and often devastated ecosystems, and to fight climate change, just by using the internet.”

“It’s also good news for user choice and fairness,” he added, pointing to recent research which he said indicates that providing a choice of search engines has the potential to increase the collective mobile market share of Google alternatives by 300-800%.

“It’s important that there are independent players in the market that don’t just exist for profit. We put our profits into tree planting and we are also focused on privacy, so users can have a positive impact on the environment while having greater control over their personal information.”

The chromium update will also see rival search engines DuckDuckGo and Yahoo added as a default in more markets when the v81 release of Chrome is pushed out.

These are the latest revisions to Chrome’s search engine defaults. But in a major shift this time last year Google quietly expanded the choice of search product in a way that gave the biggest single boost to the visibility of pro-privacy search engine rival DuckDuckGo.

It said then that the changes derived from “new usage statistics” from “recently collected data.”

But the company’s business had been facing rising attention over privacy and competition concerns.

As, indeed, Google still is…

In Europe, meanwhile, antitrust enforcement around how Google operates its Android smartphone platform has already forced the tech giant to offer a choice screen that surfaces alternative search engines and web browsers alongside its own products.

In 2018 the EU’s competition competition concluded Google had violated antitrust rules by requiring Android device makers pre-install its own search and browser apps. It was fined $5BN and ordered to cease the infringement — initially responding with a choice screen prompt that appeared to select products based on marketshare. Before announcing it would move to a ‘pay-to-play’ auction model to assign the non-Google slots on the screen starting early this year.

Rival search engines including Ecosia, DuckDuckGo and French pro-privacy search engine Qwant have been highly critical of this pay-to-play switch — hitting out at the limited slots and sealed bid auction structure Google devised. And DuckDuckGo has remained critical despite winning a universal slot on the screen early this year.

Ecosia chose to boycott the auction entirely — telling the BBC in January it’s at odds with the spirit of the Commission ruling.

“Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?” Kroll said then.

Asked for current Android usage metrics the company told us Ecosia’s total daily active users on Google’s platform have grown from 489,422 this time last year to 1,245,777 now — a 155% year over year rise in DAUs.

Though it remains to be seen whether Google’s shift to a paid auction model which Ecosia is not participating in — given doing so would require the not-for-profit to spend money paying Google to appear as a choice rather than ploughing those revenues into planting more trees — will put a dampener on Ecosia’s Android growth this year.

A spokesman for Ecosia pointed us to statcounter figures that estimate it took a 0.22%market share of mobile search in Europe between February 2019 and February 2020.

On desktop the search engine takes a higher regional share, per statcounter, account for 0.5% of desktop searches.

Overall, across mobile and desktop, Google’s share of the European search market over the same period is 93.83% vs 0.33% for Ecosia.