Judge hints at plan to rein in Google’s illegal Play Store monopoly

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A jury in December found that Google violated U.S. antitrust laws through deals and billing rules that gave an unfair boost to its Google Play app store. On Thursday, a judge began laying out how Google could be forced to change its business as a penalty. The measures under consideration could mark the most significant change yet to Google’s dominance of the Android universe.

Fortnite Video game developer Epic Games, which defeated Google in a lawsuit in which a jury declared the Play Store an illegal monopoly, is asking federal judge James Donato to ban Google from entering into contracts that stifle competition. Epic also wants Google to be forced to help competing stores list more apps, giving them a boost in competition. These changes could enable Epic to realize its long-standing plan to increase revenue by processing in-game purchases Fortnite Selling other titles without using Google’s payment system, and marketing the games through its own app store.

Google says Epic’s demands would threaten the security of its users and harm the businesses of partners, including Android device makers and app developers. The search company is appealing the jury’s decision, which could delay the rollout of any penalties for several years — or cancel them altogether. But Google has already had to make some costly changes in the past few years due to court defeats in Europe and Asia and new laws affecting the Play Store, and it currently has a lawsuit with Epic ongoing in Australia.

“I want to be clear: Google must pay some penalty as an illegal monopolist,” Donato told Epic and Google at a hearing in San Francisco on Thursday. He said Google’s damages would require unwinding the company’s hold on the Android ecosystem in a way that ends its illegal monopoly and the profits it has earned through years of unfair dominance.

That means big changes for the industry built around Google’s Android operating system, and potentially more choices for consumers. That may require Google to invest cash in new projects to get things right, Donato said.

Donato expressed disappointment at Google’s assertion that any change would be bad for consumers and other businesses. “The suggestion that the new approach would be a world no one would want to live in is baseless,” he said. But he spent hours questioning two economists at the hearing, one appearing for each company, about how to structure the penalties for Google without seeming unfair.

One of Epic’s requests is to prevent Google from making deals that restrict or discourage companies from working with alternatives to its App Store. In the past the company has required hardware companies that want to offer Google Play on their devices to agree not to work with or promote alternative app stores. This has prevented most consumers from ever seeing other app stores, as most device makers want to offer Google’s App Store because it’s the largest.

Rival app stores such as Amazon and Samsung are also struggling to persuade developers to list their apps outside of Google Play, as it takes extra work to maintain apps across multiple stores. To level the playing field, Epic has proposed that Google must provide a way for rival stores to list apps hosted on Google Play for six years. This would allow people to browse alternative stores without feeling like they are missing out on popular apps, giving the stores a better chance of success in the long run.

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