Mozilla: Five Walled Gardens

FIVE WALLED GARDENSWhy Browsers are Essential to the Internet and How Operating Systems are Holding Them Back (Mozilla, September 2022)

This report has two purposes: first, to present Mozilla’s research (both recent surveys and years of knowledge) into consumer interaction with browsers. Secondly, to highlight the foreclosure of browser engines and independent browsers by operating systems. Part 1 of the paper is about operating systems, browsers, browser engines and how consumers behave. Part 2 highlights the online choice architecture practices by operating system providers which the researchers at Mozilla believe have shaped consumer browser usage away from independent browsers.

Problems Identified

(1) Inhibiting Independent App Discovery - All five major platforms today (Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Microsoft) bundle their respective browsers with their operating systems and set them as the operating system default in the prime home screen or dock position.

(2) Prohibiting Independent App Adoption - Many platforms make it difficult or impossible to: (1) delete the operating system’s bundled browser; and/or (2) remove it as the operating system default. This is important because browsers are often opened from other apps, such as if you click a link in a text message or use voice commands to navigate the web through a search widget.

(3) Overriding Independent App Adoption - Even more egregious than prohibiting rival software adoption is reversing it in favor of the operating system - and without consumer understanding. 

Additional issues identified include specific commercial practices targeted at independent software companies

(4) Restrictive Contracts - regulators globally have criticized platform commercial agreements that tie their browsers to their operating systems and prevent OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) from pre-installing alternative default or secondary browsers on the homescreen.

(5) Restrictive App Store Rules - regulators have also criticized but have yet to take action against control tactics such as Apple’s current ban (and Microsoft’s former ban) that eliminates alternative browser engines from app stores

Report Concludes:

We believe that if people had a meaningful opportunity to try alternative browsers, they would find many to be compelling substitutes to the default bundled with their operating system. These opportunities have been suppressed for years through online choice architecture and commercial practices that benefit platforms and are not in the best interest of consumers, developers or the open web. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of years of self-preferencing and undermining consumer choice, including its effect on consumer behavior. It is also difficult to estimate the disruptive innovation, alternative products and features, and the independent competitors which have been lost as a result of these practices.

An important incentive for Mozilla’s open-source work has always been to level the competitive playing field so that developers and web users can shape their own online experiences. We hope this report is a useful addition to the efforts underway to address the lack of competition and choice in digital markets and to shine a light on the critical role of browsers and browser engines.

Despite the problematic practices described in this report, the fact remains that Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft have created innovative technologies enjoyed by consumers worldwide. They are unavoidable platforms for any developer wishing to reach consumers online. Mozilla endeavors to collaborate with engineers at all of these companies in public multi-stakeholder standards development organizations to build a better internet, in addition to partnering with Google and Microsoft for search, video streaming and malware detection services. Nonetheless, we have a long history of challenging other companies to adopt better practices that benefit the overall internet ecosystem and consumers.167 Platforms can and should do better for consumers and developers.

As these companies have so far failed to do better, regulators, policymakers and lawmakers have spent considerable time and resources investigating digital markets. They should therefore be in a good position to recognize the importance of browser competition and to act to prevent further harm to consumers from continued inaction and competitive stagnation. We call on them to enforce the laws which already exist and the laws and regulations which will soon come into force. And where existing laws and regulations are lacking, we call for them to be introduced and their importance for the future of the internet to be highlighted. Regulators, policymakers and lawmakers in many jurisdictions can take this moment to create a new era in the internet’s story — one in which consumers and developers benefit from genuine choice, competition and innovation.