US Department Of Justice Lawsuit Against Google Could Kill Firefox
A US Department of Justice lawsuit against Google on the grounds that they are a "monopolist" could result in the death of the one realistic free software web browser alternative that's not based on the Google-controlled Chromium code-base and its Blink rendering engine. Mozilla will need to find some other partner willing to pay them $400 million a year if they are forced to cancel their sweet "royalty" contract with Google.
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, gave a really good summary of how much control Google has online in a hearing in the US Senate on June 16th, 2019. Footage from CSPAN (public domain).
The US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Google for being a "Monopolist" with the goal "to Restore Competition in Search and Search Advertising Markets" on October 20th, 2020. There's one point in this lawsuit that should be somewhat concerning to free software users who use the Mozilla Firefox web browser:
"In particular, the Complaint alleges that Google has unlawfully maintained monopolies in search and search advertising by:
- Entering into exclusivity agreements that forbid preinstallation of any competing search service.
- Entering into tying and other arrangements that force preinstallation of its search applications in prime locations on mobile devices and make them undeletable, regardless of consumer preference.
- Entering into long-term agreements with Apple that require Google to be the default – and de facto exclusive – general search engine on Apple’s popular Safari browser and other Apple search tools.
- Generally using monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment for its search engine on devices, web browsers, and other search access points, creating a continuous and self-reinforcing cycle of monopolization."
The US Justice Department's demand that Google stops using its "monopoly profits to buy preferential treatment" for its search engine may sound like a noble cause. Perhaps it is. However, there is one potential side-effect that may potentially strengthen Google's monopoly in the web browser space.
The Mozilla Corporation is the maker of the very popular Mozilla Firefox web browser. It is one of the very few web browsers left that's got its own web rendering engine. The newly released Microsoft Edge for Linux web browser is nothing more than a skin for the Google-controlled Chromium web browser with a few additional features. The same holds true for the Brave Web Browser, NAVER whale and Google's own Chrome browser.
A close-up inspection of the Mozilla Corporation's finances reveals why the lawsuit against Google could kill Mozilla Firefox as a unfortunate side-effect. The Mozilla Corporation has not released an annual report for 2019 so we will have to look at the financial statement for 2018. It shows that Mozilla made $430 million from "Royalties" in 2018, down from $539 million in 2017. Mozilla was forced to fire 70 employees in January 2020 and another 250 employees in August 2020 so it is safe to assume that their royalties revenue was lower in 2019 than it was in 2018. Mozilla will be publishing their annual report for 2019 in November.
The Mozilla Corporation does not spell out specifically where the "Royalties" they earn come from. They do share this in their annual report for 2018:
"Mozilla has entered into contracts with search engine providers for royalties which expire through November 2020.
Approximately 91% and 93% of Mozilla’s royalty revenues were derived from these contracts for 2018 and 2017, respectively, with receivables from these contracts representing approximately 75% and 79% of the December 31, 2018 and 2017 outstanding receivables, respectively."
Google isn't the only search engine paying Mozilla to be the default search engine in Mozilla Firefox, it does default to other search engines in a few markets. It's safe to say that the vast majority of Mozilla's revenue comes from Google.
Mozilla extended their search engine deal with Google until 2023 in August with an estimated price-tag of around $400 million per year. There is a real risk that the US Department of Justice lawsuit will force Google to cancel that contract. That would leave the Mozilla Corporation in a very tough spot unless they manage to get a similar contract with Microsoft's Bing search engine or another player big enough to cough up $400 million per year.
"By restricting competition in search, Google’s conduct has harmed consumers by reducing the quality of search (including on dimensions such as privacy, data protection, and use of consumer data), lessening choice in search, and impeding innovation. By suppressing competition in advertising, Google has the power to charge advertisers more than it could in a competitive market and to reduce the quality of the services it provides them. Through filing the lawsuit, the Department seeks to stop Google’s anticompetitive conduct and restore competition for American consumers, advertisers, and all companies now reliant on the internet economy."
It would be sad, and ironic, if the end-result of the US Department of Justice's lawsuit aiming to "restore competition" is that Mozilla goes bankrupt. That would leave Chromium-based browsers as the only realistic choice for non-Apple users (Web browsers on Apple products are based on Apple's very similar WebKit rendering engine).