The DMA should make Big Tech let you choose your default apps

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At Proton, we have always stood for an internet that protects privacy, enables freedom, and serves the interests of everyone. We have consistently spoken out against recent anti-encryption efforts(new window) and worked to preserve privacy while making the internet a safer place(new window)

An important aspect of ensuring a free and open internet is making sure that tech giants respect the law and do not use their market dominance to engage in anti-competitive practices. As one of the better known companies trying to provide a more private and secure alternative to Big Tech web services, we have recently been called upon to assist with antitrust investigations(new window) on both sides of the Atlantic and give feedback on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the EU’s ambitious attempt to rein in the power of Big Tech companies.

As we have previously written(new window), we are generally supportive of the DMA. It is an impressive law that addresses much of the harm that Big Tech’s dominance of the internet has caused. However, it does have one critical shortcoming. The DMA fails to address Big Tech’s most harmful form of self-preferencing — their power to pre-install apps and make them the default option on smartphones and other mobile devices. The current text of the DMA only allows people to uninstall pre-installed apps, which does not solve the problem. 

Over half of the world’s internet traffic now comes from smartphones, and nearly 95 percent of people never change the default settings on their smartphones. Together, these two statistics make it clear how much Apple and Google can influence online access simply by deciding which apps are the default option on their iOS and Android devices.

Both the US Department of Justice(new window) and the European Commission(new window) have accused Big Tech companies of violating antitrust legislation by making their apps pre-installed defaults on mobile devices. Despite this being recognized as an anti-competitive practice, Big Tech companies continue to make their apps the default on their devices, signaling the need for stronger legislation. 

The DMA’s stated aim is to prevent Big Tech gatekeepers from abusing their control over critical parts of the internet’s infrastructure to kill competition, which is why it must address pre-installed default apps. (While there are many qualifications, essentially a tech company must be worth more than €65 billion to be considered a gatekeeper by the DMA.) Letting Big Tech gatekeepers make their own apps the default option undermines user privacy, reduces consumer choice, hinders innovation, and gives them an unfair advantage over business competitors. 

We call on the European Commission to empower people to choose their own default apps on their smartphone.

What is a default app?

A default app is an application that your device’s operating system uses as the primary app to handle a specific task, like the browser that automatically opens when you follow a link. Most smartphone default apps come pre-installed with the device. Examples include:

  • Safari (for iOS)
  • Apple Maps (for iOS)
  • Gmail (for Android)
  • Google Search (for Android)

Defaults are set by the operating system, which in almost all cases is either Android or iOS, giving Google and Apple control over the default app selection in almost all mobile devices sold today. 

How default apps harm everyone

Apple and Google say they make their apps the default option on iOS and Android devices to make it easier for you to use a smartphone right out of the box. However, these companies also know that 95 percent of people(new window) never change their smartphone’s default settings. 

This psychological phenomenon is known as “default bias”. It means that Google or Apple can trap the majority of people using its smartphone into its ecosystem of apps and services simply by making its apps the default option. 

The ability to self-preference their apps gives Big Tech gatekeepers an unfair advantage. But default apps also have negative effects on individual end users, competing companies, and society as a whole.

Undermine people’s privacy

Most default apps have poor privacy protections, especially default apps from Google, as Google’s business model relies on collecting user data to create detailed user profiles for advertising. By putting the burden on you to change apps (or change the app’s default privacy settings), Big Tech companies increase the amount of your data they have access to.

For example, even if you know Gmail allows Google to access your messages, it can be difficult to change apps. Gmail comes pre-installed on Android devices, so all you have to do is log in, and Google ties some Android features to your Google/Gmail account. Google relies on the default bias to trap people into using its apps even if they are worried about Google’s poor privacy protections.

Once your personal data is collected, there is very little you can do to control or delete it. It can be merged with other datasets, sold to third parties, or used for profiling.

Prevent user choice

Big Tech gatekeepers like Apple and Google want to trap users into their ecosystem of services, and default apps are their secret weapon. First, a gatekeeper uses default apps to hook new users. Then, it crossties its other services together, making it easy for users inside its ecosystem to use all its other services, like how Google ties its Google Workspace apps to your Gmail account. The new battleground for gatekeepers is between ecosystems of services, not just individual apps. 

This also creates a vicious cycle. These companies trap more users in their service ecosystem, giving them more revenue and power, which lets them expand their services into new areas, where they can again take advantage of default bias. For example, Apple is currently expanding into streaming with Apple TV+ and pre-installing it on all iOS devices.

Block competition

The US Department of Justice and the European Commission have both argued that Google requiring Google Search be the default search app on Android devices violates free market principles. When it fined Google €4.34 billion in 2018 for antitrust abuses, the European Commission found that 95 percent of search queries made on Android devices used Google Search because it and the Chrome browser are Android’s default options. It also found that 75 percent of search queries made on Windows Mobile devices used the default Bing Search option. 

By setting their app as the default, Big Tech gatekeepers are blocking out their competitors’ apps from the vast majority of smartphones. Big Tech companies claim that as long as anyone can download their competitors’ apps in the app store, they can’t be accused of blocking the competition. However, as the European Commission’s study shows, few people ever replace their pre-installed default apps. 

Non-gatekeeper companies cannot overcome default bias or pay billions of euros for access to mobile devices. This means that they struggle to access smartphones, the most popular and fastest-growing method for accessing the internet. This prevents competing apps and services from gaining traction, even if they are better for users in terms of privacy or security.

Stifle innovation

Apple and Google’s dominance of smartphones gives them little incentive to improve because they know they will always have users thanks to default bias. At the same time, they block out innovative competitors who are trying to improve user experiences and privacy.

What the DMA should do about default apps

Currently, Article 6.1(b) of the DMA says that people should be able to uninstall pre-installed apps. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, this is unlikely to help people overcome default bias and switch away from pre-installed default apps. 

We believe that to prevent Big Tech from self-preferencing its apps and make the internet a level playing field once more, the DMA must empower people to choose their own default apps via an effectively designed preference menu.

To give people a true choice, the DMA will have to ban gatekeepers from abusing their control of mobile operating systems to self-preference their core platform service apps, and this ban should also apply to bundling agreements with third parties. 

Let people choose their default apps

We believe that everyone should have the right to make an informed decision about which app is the default on their smartphone for core platform services, including:

  • Email
  • Cloud storage
  • Search
  • App stores
  • Internet browsers

Your browser is an especially sensitive app. It has access to a large amount of sensitive personal data that can be used to influence you, but the DMA does not currently consider browsers a core platform service. This must be fixed to ensure that the app with access to all of your browsing activity is subject to the same regulation as other apps.

This type of choice leads to happier users, creates a more diverse market, and fosters innovation. We believe that the EU agency in charge of enforcing the DMA should have the right to design a way for people to choose their own default apps (for example, in the form of an easily accessible and properly designed preference menu). This menu should:

  • Display at least 8 of the most popular default app alternatives (based on market share)
  • Be free for alternative apps (no pay-for-play conditions)
  • Not use “dark patterns” or give users the impression there is a preferred app

A DuckDuckGo study(new window) found that when people were presented with an effectively designed menu with more search engines to choose from, Google was chosen less often.

The DMA is our best hope of fixing the internet 

A handful of Big Tech companies have remade the internet so that it serves their best interests, which is why there is such broad support for internet reform. The DMA could help break the power of these gatekeepers and create an internet that puts people first, but we only have one opportunity to get it right. 

If you live in Europe and want an internet that respects your security, privacy, and freedom, contact your MEP(new window) and tell them you think the DMA should let you choose the default apps for your smartphone.

We will continue offering our insight on how the DMA should work, and we look forward to engaging with the European Parliament and Council on this subject. We believe it is an essential part of our mission to enable people to be in control of their information at all times.

Feel free to share your feedback and questions with us via our official social media channels on Twitter(new window) and Reddit(new window).

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Richie Koch

Prior to joining Proton, Richie spent several years working on tech solutions in the developing world. He joined the Proton team to advance the rights of online privacy and freedom.

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