A small group of tech behemoths are using deceptive design features and other tactics to maintain their dominance in the web browser marketplace—to the detriment of consumers, according to a new report released by rival provider Mozilla.
The move marks the latest push by smaller tech companies to drum up support for more stringent regulation of the conduct of Silicon Valley giants.
The report, released Thursday, zeroes in on the impact that concentration in the tech industry has had on browser engines, the often-overlooked software that turns digital code like HTML into what users experience on Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox and other browsers.
Only three companies currently offer major browser engines, according to the findings: Apple, Google and Mozilla. And because Apple’s engine is largely limited to its own products, Mozilla wrote, that’s left developers and consumers with limited choices.
The result, according to the report, is the “centralizing control of the web in the hands of a single company and creating a single point of failure for security and privacy.”
“We wanted to shine a light on it and explain that if you don’t have diversity of browser engines, then everyone’s built off the same build engine, and therefore you’re tied to the same company,” said Kushall Amlani, global competition and regulatory counsel for Mozilla.
The review also contains a survey of how residents across countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the United States, use browsers, which according to the report highlights troubling trends.
The survey found that while the majority of users expressed confidence in “having a wide choice of browsers and knowing how to install a browser on their device,” that many “never actually install a browser on their device and even fewer report changing their default.” Mozilla surveyed over 6,000 residents online in the United States, U.K., France, India and Kenya in March and April.
Amlani said the results suggest “people have concerns” about their browsers, “but they don’t necessarily act on them” and switch products.
Mozilla argued that the use of so-called “dark patterns”—misleading or suggestive design features meant to lead users to certain product choices—is a major reason.
According to the report, consumers’ ability to switch browsers has “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.”
Google and Apple have pushed back on charges that they limit user choice and stifle competition through their web browsers, Chrome and Safari.
After rival search engine DuckDuckGo accused Google of manipulating browser extensions to favor its own products, the company said in response that “Chrome users can directly change their default search settings at any time.” Google has previously also said that people choose Chrome because it is “fast, secure and offers the best experience.”
Apple has pushed back on Safari criticisms by saying that the company “has every interest in supporting a robust ecosystem of third-party browsers and web apps, and will continue to promote innovation and choice while ensuring users’ privacy and security are protected.”
The companies did not immediately return a request for comment on the report early Thursday.
Allegations of a lack of competition in the browser marketplace are increasingly factoring into regulators’ antitrust investigations globally.
The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority said in June it was looking into competition between browser developers as part of an antitrust probe of Google and Apple.
The European Union’s sweeping new competition rules, known as the Digital Markets Act, also take aim at practices by tech giants that could entrench their browser dominance.
But Amlani said more scrutiny is still warranted, particularly around how factors like concentration in browser engines and the use of dark patterns exacerbate one another.
“I think it’s an important point that people are looking at parts of all of the picture, and what we want to do is build that whole picture so that people can connect the dots themselves,” he said.
Next, he said, Mozilla plans to turn its attention to developing “remedies” and putting out proposals to address the issues outlined in the report.