Last Wednesday, the European Commission officially accused Google of abusing the dominant position of its Android operating system (which has an 80 percent mobile market share in the EU) to covertly promote the company’s own mobile apps and services over others. Google has responded by pointing out that Android users are free to download apps and access services from anyone, including top competitors like Apple.
The press has so far cast the EU’s complaint as the latest skirmish in the war between American tech companies and European regulators. That’s true, but it misses the bigger story: this exact fight already played out in 2014, when Google settled with the Commission over accusations that it abused its dominance in PC-based search.
That the Commission has bothered to pick the same fight twice is what’s important. It shows that they believe — accurately — that the global flow of commerce and information, which makes the web vital, has been diverted from PCs to our mobile devices. In 2016, the only regulatory fight that matters is the fight over mobile.
More than half of all internet traffic in Europe and the U.S. now takes place on mobile devices, and that number is rapidly increasing. Every year since 2010, nearly 100 percent of the absolute value delivered to consumers via the expansion of new, free web-based services has come from mobile. There are now more people on earth with smartphones than without them. The sheer scale of smartphone adoption is so much greater than the rest of the tech sector that the only comparable products, in the words of leading tech analyst Benedict Evans, are “shoes and toothbrushes.”
It is no wonder that the European Commission has been willing to put all its unwieldy machinery in motion in an attempt to shape and restrict the mobile landscape.
The rise and significance of the mobile web is a global story. Developing world populations are leapfrogging PCs and accessing the web for the first time via mobile devices, their preferred enabling device. In Africa, smartphone penetration now exceeds 70 percent. In the two years from 2013-2015, more than a quarter of the populations of Brazil and Chile adopted smartphones. And the number of smartphone users in China is now larger than all the people alive in the European Union.
Mobile’s rise isn’t just about statistics, it’s about emotions. The more we access the web via mobile, the more personal and emotionally charged our relationship with it becomes. A majority of users around the world now rely on their smartphones to make decisions about health and employment, to engage in on-the-fly entertainment, and to access educational resources. That figure is higher for younger users and those in developing countries. The younger a smartphone user is, the wider array of emotions they feel about the valuable data they are accessing on their device.
Perhaps the most poignant example of how important mobile devices have become is the role smartphones play in the lives of refugees fleeing the Middle East for Europe. Smartphones are their single point of contact, their ad hoc banking tool, sole news source, navigation tool, and most crucially, their chief way of staying in touch with and locating loved ones. They are so crucial that the UN has made mobile charging centers a standard component of refugee relief stations from Turkey to Calais. In lives with room for only the bare essentials, mobile web access is center stage.
Whichever way the EU’s current fight with Google goes, it’s clear that any new rules about mobile internet use will have much greater ramifications than any decisions previously made about PC-based internet use. As mobile goes, so goes our collective relationship to the internet.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Daily Caller.
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