Why your internet choices just got narrower

Microsoft recently gave up on developing its own browser technology, opting to use Google’s instead. News coverage focused on how Microsoft was waving the “white flag” to Google after losing a popularity contest, but some stories also noted how Microsoft’s action might lead to a better browsing experience for consumers on Windows.

All of that misses the main point: by adopting the Chromium project, the open-source browsing technology that underpins Google’s Chrome, in the development of Edge, Microsoft is giving Google even more control of online life — more ability to single-handedly decide what possibilities are available to each one of us — with major implications for consumer choice and competition.

Choosing a browser can have serious benefits for the consumer. It is like a user’s agent — it represents you online, as you make your way around the internet. Browsers are powered by engines: Google’s Chrome has Blink, my company Mozilla’s Firefox has Gecko and, until last week, Microsoft built Edge on its own browser engine, EdgeHTML.

Browser engines are incredibly important, with functions that go well beyond what we think of as “browsing.” They determine core capabilities, such as which content consumers can see, how secure consumers are when we watch content, and how much control consumers have over what websites and services see and do with our information. They are a cornerstone of the internet’s infrastructure.

From a social, civic and individual empowerment perspective, ceding further control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible. And this news comes at a time when our society is grappling with broader issues of consolidation, monopoly and potential antitrust actions in both tech and the broader economy. This is why Mozilla exists. We do not compete with Google because it’s a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health and benefits of the internet depend on competition and choice. It depends on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.

Recent studies estimate that since the 1990s, market concentration in the United States has increased in 75% of industries. And 2018 was no exception. In fact, this year is on pace to break previous consolidation records. Globally, the first three quarters of 2018 saw mergers and acquisition deals valued at $3.3 trillion, the largest number since people started keeping track almost 40 years ago. Amazon bought Whole Foods, CVS bought Aetna, and the AT&T-Time Warner merger is making its way through the courts.

Consolidation is also rife in the tech sector. Amazon now has around 50% of all e-commerce spending. As consumers cut the cord to cable companies, Netflix has signed up 89% of people who stream video-on-demand. And Google already owns 92% of the internet search market share. European regulators concerned about this kind of consolidation recently leveled a $5 billion fine on Google for anti-competitive bundling of Chrome and search apps to Android. Even in this environment, it’s easy to miss the massively anti-competitive nature of Microsoft giving up on EdgeHTML. If Mozilla disappeared tomorrow, Google would have near monopoly control of how all of us experience web content on Windows and Android, a massive combined market share.

Will Microsoft’s decision make it harder for Mozilla’s own browser Firefox to prosper? It might. Making Google more powerful is risky on many fronts, including to our potential revenue. Google determines so much of consumer content experience, as well as the business model for many businesses online, from publishers to browsers like Mozilla Firefox to retailers seeking customers generally. And in the odd way of technology, part of the answer depends on what the web developers who code services and websites do. If one technology has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything else.

That’s exactly what it was like in the early 2000s, before Firefox, when Microsoft had a near-monopoly status with its Internet Explorer browser. The consumer experience began to deteriorate. Within a few years, consumers were trapped in an abusive, insecure and malware-laden system. Mozilla became an independent, non-profit, 501(c) (3) organization to build a competitive browser as a public-benefit open source project. My role as Mozilla’s co-founder, leader and, later, CEO and chair, has always been to ensure Mozilla focused on creating an internet experience that was better for consumers.

It took Firefox, an alternative produced by a mission-driven organization, to give consumers a better option. And we could go back there again, if we’re not careful.

I call on web developers not to go down the path of monopoly.

The overall trend is toward digital monopolization, and the new control Google just gained should serve as a rallying cry for us all. It is time to fight to keep the internet from becoming just a handful of companies that control just about everything.

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