Tree planting search engine Ecosia is getting a visibility boost in Chrome

Ecosia, a not-for-profit search engine which uses ad generated revenue to fund planting trees, is set to get a visibility boost in Chrome. A change Google is making to its chromium engine will see it added as a default search engine choice in up to 47 markets for the version 81 release of Google’s web browser.

Ecosia will soon be included on Chrome’s default search engine list in several major markets, including the UK, US, France and Germany — alongside the likes of Google Search, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!

It’s the first time the not-for-profit search engine will have appeared in Chrome’s default search engine choice list. And while users of Chrome can always navigate directly to Ecosia to search, or download an extension to search via it directly in the browser’s URL bar, those active steps require prior knowledge of the product. Whereas being listed as a default option in Chrome means Ecosia will be put in front of people who aren’t yet familiar with it.

The Berlin-based search engine said Google Chrome’s selection of default search engines is based on search engine popularity rankings in different markets.

The full list of markets where it will be offered as a choice in the v81 release is: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bahrain, Brunei, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Denmark, Ecuador, Spain, Faroe Islands, France, Guatemala, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Paraguay, Sweden, El Salvador, Taiwan, United States, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam.

The shift comes after what Ecosia said was a record year of usage growth for its search engine — with monthly active users rising from 8 million to 15 million during 2019.

The company dedicates 80% of advertising profits to funding reforestation projects in biodiversity hotspots around the world, and says it has planted 86 million+ trees since it was founded back in 2009 — a total it’s expecting will grow as a result of Google’s decision to include Ecosia as a default choice.

Commenting in a statement Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll said: “Ecosia’s growth over the last year shows just how invested users are in the fight against the climate crisis. Everywhere, people are weighing up the changes they can make to reduce their carbon footprint, including adopting technologies such as Ecosia. Our addition to Chrome will now make it even easier for users to help reforest delicate, at-risk and often devastated ecosystems, and to fight climate change, just by using the internet.”

“It’s also good news for user choice and fairness,” he added, pointing to recent research which he said indicates that providing a choice of search engines has the potential to increase the collective mobile market share of Google alternatives by 300-800%.

“It’s important that there are independent players in the market that don’t just exist for profit. We put our profits into tree planting and we are also focused on privacy, so users can have a positive impact on the environment while having greater control over their personal information.”

The chromium update will also see rival search engines DuckDuckGo and Yahoo added as a default in more markets when the v81 release of Chrome is pushed out.

These are the latest revisions to Chrome’s search engine defaults. But in a major shift this time last year Google quietly expanded the choice of search product in a way that gave the biggest single boost to the visibility of pro-privacy search engine rival DuckDuckGo.

It said then that the changes derived from “new usage statistics” from “recently collected data.”

But the company’s business had been facing rising attention over privacy and competition concerns.

As, indeed, Google still is…

In Europe, meanwhile, antitrust enforcement around how Google operates its Android smartphone platform has already forced the tech giant to offer a choice screen that surfaces alternative search engines and web browsers alongside its own products.

In 2018 the EU’s competition competition concluded Google had violated antitrust rules by requiring Android device makers pre-install its own search and browser apps. It was fined $5BN and ordered to cease the infringement — initially responding with a choice screen prompt that appeared to select products based on marketshare. Before announcing it would move to a ‘pay-to-play’ auction model to assign the non-Google slots on the screen starting early this year.

Rival search engines including Ecosia, DuckDuckGo and French pro-privacy search engine Qwant have been highly critical of this pay-to-play switch — hitting out at the limited slots and sealed bid auction structure Google devised. And DuckDuckGo has remained critical despite winning a universal slot on the screen early this year.

Ecosia chose to boycott the auction entirely — telling the BBC in January it’s at odds with the spirit of the Commission ruling.

“Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?” Kroll said then.

Asked for current Android usage metrics the company told us Ecosia’s total daily active users on Google’s platform have grown from 489,422 this time last year to 1,245,777 now — a 155% year over year rise in DAUs.

Though it remains to be seen whether Google’s shift to a paid auction model which Ecosia is not participating in — given doing so would require the not-for-profit to spend money paying Google to appear as a choice rather than ploughing those revenues into planting more trees — will put a dampener on Ecosia’s Android growth this year.

A spokesman for Ecosia pointed us to statcounter figures that estimate it took a 0.22%market share of mobile search in Europe between February 2019 and February 2020.

On desktop the search engine takes a higher regional share, per statcounter, account for 0.5% of desktop searches.

Overall, across mobile and desktop, Google’s share of the European search market over the same period is 93.83% vs 0.33% for Ecosia.

European lawmakers propose a ‘right to repair’ for mobiles and laptops

The European Commission has set out a plan to move towards a ‘right to repair’ for electronics devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

More generally it wants to restrict single-use products, tackle “premature obsolescence” and ban the destruction of unsold durable goods — in order to make sustainable products the norm.

The proposals are part of a circular economy action plan that’s intended to deliver on a Commission pledge to transition the bloc to carbon neutrality by 2050.

By extending the lifespan of products, via measures which target design and production to encourage repair, reuse and recycling, the policy push aims to reduce resource use and shrink the environmental impact of buying and selling stuff.

The Commission also wants to arm EU consumers with reliable information about reparability and durability — to empower them to make greener product choices.

“Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy,” said EVP Frans Timmermans in a statement. “Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only. There is a huge potential to be exploited both for businesses and consumers. With today’s plan we launch action to transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices for their own benefit and that of the environment.”

The Commission said electronics and ICT will be a priority area for implementing a right to repair, via planned expansion of the Ecodesign Directive — which currently sets energy efficiency standards for devices such as washing machines.

Its action plan proposes setting up a ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’ to promote longer product lifetimes through reusability and reparability as well as “upgradeability” of components and software to avoid premature obsolescence.

The Commission is also planning new regulatory measures on chargers for mobile phones and similar devices. While an EU-wide take back scheme to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers is being considered.

Back in January the EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly for tougher action to reduce e-waste, calling for the Commission to come up with beefed up rules by this summer.

In recent years MEPs have also pushed for the Ecodesign Direction to be expanded to include repairability.

The Commission proposals also include a new regulatory framework for batteries and vehicles — including measures to improve the collection and recycling rates of batteries and ensure the recovery of valuable materials. Plus there’s a proposal to revise the rules on end-of-life vehicles to improve recycling efficiency and waste oil treatment. 

It’s also planning measures to set targets to shrink the amount of packaging being produced, with the aim of making all packaging reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.

Mandatory requirements on recycled content for plastics used in areas such as packaging, construction materials and vehicles is another proposal.

Other priority areas for promoting circularity and reducing high consumption rates include construction, textiles and food.

The Commission expects the circular economy to have net positive benefits in terms of GDP growth and jobs’ creation across the bloc — suggesting measures to boost sustainability will increase the EU’s GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 and create around 700,000 new jobs.

The backing of MEPs in the European Parliament and EU Member States will be necessary if the Commission proposals are to make it into pan-EU law.

Should they do so, Dutch social enterprise Fairphone shows a glimpse of what’s coming down the repairable pipe in future…

Google gobbling Fitbit is a major privacy risk, warns EU data protection advisor

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) has intervened to raise concerns about Google’s plan to scoop up the health and activity data of millions of Fitbit users — at a time when the company is under intense scrutiny over how extensively it tracks people online and for antitrust concerns.

Google confirmed its plan to acquire Fitbit last November, saying it would pay $7.35 per share for the wearable maker in an all-cash deal that valued Fitbit, and therefore the activity, health, sleep and location data it can hold on its more than 28M active users, at ~$2.1 billion.

Regulators are in the process of considering whether to allow the tech giant to gobble up all this data.

Google, meanwhile, is in the process of dialling up its designs on the health space.

In a statement issued after a plenary meeting this week the body that advises the European Commission on the application of EU data protection law highlights the privacy implications of the planned merger, writing: “There are concerns that the possible further combination and accumulation of sensitive personal data regarding people in Europe by a major tech company could entail a high level of risk to the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data.”

Just this month the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) opened a formal investigation into Google’s processing of people’s location data — finally acting on GDPR complaints filed by consumer rights groups as early as November 2018  which argue the tech giant uses deceptive tactics to manipulate users in order to keep tracking them for ad-targeting purposes.

The Irish DPC, which is the lead privacy regulator for Google in the EU and a member of the EDPB, said the advisory body’s statement is a reflection of the collective views of data protection agencies across the bloc.

The EDPB’s statement goes on to reiterate the importance for EU regulators to asses what it describes as the “longer-term implications for the protection of economic, data protection and consumer rights whenever a significant merger is proposed”.

It also says it intends to remain “vigilant in this and similar cases in the future”.

The EDPB includes a reminder that Google and Fitbit have obligations under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation to conduct a “full assessment of the data protection requirements and privacy implications of the merger” — and do so in a transparent way, under the regulation’s principle of accountability.

“The EDPB urges the parties to mitigate the possible risks of the merger to the rights to privacy and data protection before notifying the merger to the European Commission,” it also writes.

We reached out to Google for comment but at the time of writing it had not provided a response nor responded to a question asking what commitments it will be making to Fitbit users regarding the privacy of their data.

Fitbit has previously claimed that users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”.

However big tech has a history of subsequently steamrollering founder claims that ‘nothing will change’. (See, for e.g.: Facebook’s WhatsApp U-turn on data-linking.)

“The EDPB will consider the implications that this merger may have for the protection of personal data in the European Economic Area and stands ready to contribute its advice on the proposed merger to the Commission if so requested,” the advisory body adds.

We also reached out to the European Commission’s competition unit for a response to the EDPB’s statement. A spokeswoman confirmed the transaction has not been formally notified to it. 

“It is always up to the companies to notify transactions with an EU dimension to the European Commission,” she added. 

It is not yet clear whether or not the acquisition will face merger control review in the EU.

Update: A Google spokesperson has now sent this statement: “We are acquiring Fitbit to help us develop devices in the highly competitive wearables space and the deal is subject to the usual regulatory approvals. Protecting peoples’ information is core to what we do, and we will continue to work constructively with regulators to answer their questions.”

The company also pointed to its original blog post about the acquisition — highlighting the claims that: “We will never sell personal information to anyone. Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

This report was updated with additional comment