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Alternative browsers report uplift after EU's DMA choice screen mandate | TechCrunch

A flagship European Union digital market regulation appears to be shaking up competition in the mobile browser market.

It’s been a little over a month since the Digital Markets Act (DMA) came into application and there are early signs it’s having an impact by forcing phone makers to show browser choice screens to users.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported growth data shared by Cyprus-based web browser Aloha and others that it said suggests the new law is stirring the competitive pot and helping smaller browser makers gain share or at least grab more attention than they were.

But it’s early days for DMA implementation, with choice screen rollouts still a work in progress, and many EU users haven’t even seen one yet. While Aloha is not the only other browser reporting a boost in interest since the DMA compliance deadline kicked in on March 7 — Brave, Opera and Vivaldi also shared positive stories of increased interest — several others, including DuckDuckGo and Firefox, told us it’s too soon for them to be able to assess the regulation’s effect.

TechCrunch reached out to 16 alternative browser makers with questions, as well as Apple and Google, to inform our reporting. We also contacted the European Commission to ask about its own tracking of the DMA’s impact in this area — but it declined to share any data.

Neither Apple nor Google responded to questions asking about any changes in regional usage of their own browsers since the choice screens began being shown to mobile users.

Opting for choice screens

The EU’s goal for the DMA is to boost competition against internet “gatekeepers” whose control of dominant platforms gives them many operational advantages over smaller rivals. The regulation does this through a list of “dos and don’ts” that tech giants must comply with. In the case of browsers, it obliges the likes of iOS maker Apple and Google’s Android to display browser choice screens — forcing them to point users to alternatives to Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome.

Choice screens are intended to work against platform dominance and self-serving defaults by alerting consumers there are other options. But users do still need to decide to switch to an alternative app in order for choice screens to boost competition. The design of screens is also important.

Some alternative browser makers remain concerned the design of choice screens isn’t where it needs to be. We suspect this is leading to reluctance by some underdogs to share data on early impact, especially as the EU is currently investigating Apple’s choice screen design for suspected noncompliance.

In other words, some browser makers may be playing a waiting game in the hopes of encouraging Commission enforcers to push for a stronger implementation. At the same time, some really small browser players may see more gains to be had from good old-fashioned publicity — for example, sending out a press release trumpeting early interest — as a tactic to raise their profile to try to drive more downloads through increased awareness.

Overall, it’s still very early. Many regional mobile users may not have even seen a choice screen appear on their handset yet. Google, for instance, says screens are being displayed on newly launched Android devices but for existing Android handsets it’s up to the makers of the devices to push out the choice screens to their users. So there isn’t a clear implementation timeline on Android.

While in the case of iOS, Apple says it’s been displaying choice screens to users of iOS since iOS 17.4. But users who haven’t updated to this version also won’t have seen any yet.

Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, told us it estimates that less than a fifth of iOS users have been shown a choice screen so far. It reckons even fewer Android users have seen one in the wild as yet.

With this patchy Android rollout picture in mind, it seems likely that more iOS users will have seen choice screens than Android users so far — even though Google’s platform has a larger regional market share.

Measuring the impact of the DMA on alternative browsers’ market share is further complicated by variations in the apps that mobile users see in different EU countries. Some alternatives, such as Firefox, can appear on the iOS choice screen in every EU market. Whereas others are far more limited: Vivaldi, for example, can only appear in eight countries. So exposure to potential users can vary substantially depending on the browser. (Apple lists the options it’s currently showing in each market here.)

Alt browsers on the up?

Aloha, a browser that focuses on privacy and claims not to track users, told us it’s seen 250% growth in new users (i.e., app downloads) since the DMA came into effect last month. It reports having approximately 10 million active monthly users globally — and estimates that around 1 million of those are located in the EU. So it remains a very small player.

However, since Aloha says it does not collect any personal data, including location data, it told us it cannot be precise about where its users are located. Yet it told Reuters the EU had moved up from being its fourth largest market to its second largest since the DMA compliance deadline kicked in.

Aloha also claimed to have seen an uptick in users in the U.S. since the DMA came into effect — yet the regulation does not apply in the U.S. market so U.S. users aren’t encountering it via browser choice screens. Aloha told TechCrunch it believes privacy awareness is rising generally, but also suggested growth in new installs in the EU may be helping to raise its position in the U.S. App Store.

Norway-based Opera, meanwhile, is also claiming market share gains since the DMA started to bite on March 7. Per new metrics shared with TechCrunch Wednesday, Opera said new user growth from February to the end of March was 63% — so it’s reporting a substantial uptick in people downloading Opera and giving it a try.

It is also reporting a 39% growth in users on iOS selecting its browser as their default specifically, from March 3 until April 4.

Previously (as of March 18), Opera reported 164% growth in the inflow of new EU users on iOS after the deadline for Apple to implement the DMA-enforced choice screen. So there actually appears to have been a drop in the growth rate it’s seen over this period — that is, after a bigger initial spike of interest.

Regardless, Opera is sounding very happy with the extra level of interest it’s seeing. In a statement, Jørgen Arnesen, its EVP of mobile, said the DMA “is working to even the playing field,” adding: “We’re excited to see that it has become easier for users to express their browser choice and for that choice to be respected.”

Another browser maker with a positive experience since DMA compliance day is Vivaldi, which is also developed out of Norway.

It told TechCrunch it’s seen an increase of 36.7% in downloads in the EU (in total) since the iOS choice screen came into effect. But the boost in downloads is even bigger when you look at the eight markets where Vivaldi is actually being shown on iOS choice screens. In those markets it said downloads have increased 69.6% since the choice screen started being pushed at users.

Despite this uptick in downloads, Vivaldi is unhappy with the current design of Apple’s choice screen.

“There are significant flaws with its implementation, including when it is shown and what is shown,” a company spokesperson told us. “Users can only see the choice screen when they click Safari. The list of browsers does not show additional information and that does not help users to make a meaningful choice. If the user has already selected a browser of their own choice, the choice screen can actively try to push them away from it, and may not even include it in the list that it presents to the user.”

“We think the priority should be given to cross-platform browsers, so that the same browser can be used on all of the user’s devices,” she added. “Apple looks at it very narrowly, per platform and country. We believe the main browser choices should be visible and we are not. And we should be on the list for all countries.”

We also heard positive things from Brave. The U.S.-based privacy-focused browser said it’s seen “a significant uptick” in installs since the DMA came into effect. (Although it does not report users per region so declined to break out total usage figures for the EU.)

“The daily installs for Brave on iOS in the EU went from around 7,500 to 11,000 with the new browser panel this past March,” per a company spokesperson. “In the past few days, we have seen a new all time high spike of 14,000 daily installs, nearly doubling our pre-choice screen numbers.”

“Regarding retention, users who are choosing Brave from the DMA screen are being retained equally to or better than our average,” she added, arguing that, overall, the uptick in interest it’s seeing “confirms that users want choice.”

On the flip side, three other alternative browsers that we contacted — DuckDuckGo, Ecosia and Firefox — suggested it’s too early to tell whether the DMA is helping them.

Veteran privacy-focused browser maker DuckDuckGo declined to share any data, saying it’s too soon to draw meaningful conclusions.

“While we’ve seen some positive signs, the choice screen rollout is ongoing and for a competitor like us that sees billions of searches and millions of downloads a month, we need more time to make an accurate impact assessment at scale,” it said in a statement.

DuckDuckGo also told us it lacks access to “key information” to be able to assess the DMA’s impact, saying, for example, that it has no way of knowing how many people have seen a search engine or browser choice screen.

“This is key because it would help us understand our selection rate on a choice screen and how widespread the rollout has been,” it noted, adding: “We’re at the beginning of this journey, not the end.”

Another alt player, the not-for-profit, tree-planting and eco-action focused Ecosia, also told us it doesn’t have enough data to make an accurate assessment of the regulation’s impact. “We have not received selection rates or any other meaningful datasets, so it is hard for us to solidly report on the effectiveness of the choice screen at this stage,” said Sophie Dembinski, its head of public policy and climate action.

She emphasized Ecosia isn’t happy with the current iOS choice screen, which it believes is hampering potential growth — also pointing to the Commission’s open case investigating Apple’s implementation.

“While Ecosia has jumped to second and third position in some European markets for utility apps in the Apple App Store, our search numbers have barely changed,” she said. “This is due to several design issues within Apple’s choice screen — such as showing the choice screen to users who have already selected an alternative choice to Safari; an overly complex installation process which loses a large number of users; and keeping the Safari browser app in the best position on the home screen.”

Another veteran browser player, Firefox, is also keeping its powder dry when it comes to assessing early impact.

“We are not currently sharing absolute numbers, both because we have some serious concerns about the current choice screens and because we estimate that less than 20% of users on iOS and likely less on Google have been exposed to them thus far,” said Mozilla’s Kush Amlani, global competition and regulatory counsel.

“The DMA represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create competition and choice for EU consumers. Whether that potential is realized depends on the gatekeepers’ compliance and the European Commission’s enforcement,” he emphasized, also referencing the Commission’s probes into suspected gatekeeper non-compliance.

“While we’re seeing many thousands of people select Firefox on the choice screens, we don’t think this should distract from the fact that the iOS choice screen has significant flaws that block people from making genuine choices,” Amlani added. “The critical challenge is that powerful and deep-pocketed gatekeepers are incentivized to protect their existing closed ecosystems and fight the implementation of the DMA, which will open them up to competition.”

TechCrunch’s outreach to browser makers that may benefit from the DMA choice screens also yielded one report of no meaningful impact since the requirement kicked in: Yandex, a Russia-based browser that can appear on the iOS choice screen anywhere in the EU, told us it hasn’t seen “any meaningful changes in the user metrics in the region so far.”

In Yandex’s case, its possible disinterest in switching could be linked to consumer concerns about using or supporting software that’s developed in Russia in light of the Ukraine war.

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Robotic Automations

Big Tech's ad transparency tools are still woeful, Mozilla research report finds | TechCrunch

Efforts by tech giants to be more transparent about the ads they run are — at very best — still a work in progress, according to a report looking at ads transparency tools. The report comes about a half year since the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) rules for larger platforms came into force, mandating companies offer a searchable public ads library. Companies include: Apple, Google, Meta, TikTok and X.

In some cases, notably (but not exclusively) X’s, the level of ad transparency provided by the platform scores close to zero on all fronts, with available tools lacking vital data and functionality per the external assessment, which was conducted by free software maker Mozilla working with CheckFirst, a Finland-based disinformation research company.

The report’s top-line conclusion is that platforms’ ad oversight tools are falling short of delivering the intended transparency and democratic accountability in a critical year for elections globally.

We find a huge variation among the platforms, but one thing is true across all of them: none is a fully-functional ad repository and none will provide researchers and civil society groups with the tools and data they need to effectively monitor the impact of VLOs [very large online platforms and search engines] on Europe’s upcoming elections,” the report authors write, naming AliExpress and X as the worst examples of those tech giants that do provide an ads library (Amazon has avoided providing one so far), before adding in a line that damns with faint praise: “[W]e struggle to tell you which one is best.”

A lack of critical data and effective tools to study platforms means independent researchers still face huge barriers when it comes to producing data-driven insights on the impacts of Big Tech. Without robust public interest research, how can the world’s wealthiest companies be held to account for business models that frequently rely on amping up user engagement to juice more ad views?

Just think of the discussion around social media use and teens’ mental health, as one example. Ads transparency tools that enabled external researchers to study the types of paid messaging targeting young people across different platforms could help shine a light on any problematic dynamics and platform incentives. But adtech giants evidently aren’t making this kind of research easy.

Still, the bald fact of 11 of the world’s largest tech companies providing ad repositories — most doing so as a direct result of the EU regulation — is “in itself” a basic form of progress, as the research authors see it. Even as none of the tools they’re offering are properly enabling researchers yet in their view.  

The pan-EU DSA provides for penalties of up to 6% of global annual turnover for compliance failures. So enforcement on poor performance could lead to hefty fines down the line. But despite this dialed-up regulatory risk, the report suggests tech giants aren’t exactly falling over themselves to shine a clarifying spotlight on a targeted messaging that funnels direct revenue into their coffers.

Compliance theater

Indeed, no platform got a “ready for action” green light assessment from Mozilla and CheckFirst. Meta, which has been operating an ads library for longest, has among the most mature offering in their view, yet its ads library still has “big gaps in data and functionality,” per the report. Likewise, Apple, LinkedIn and TikTok all have similar failings. Alphabet (Google), and Pinterest are assessed as offering an even worse “bare minimum” effort.

Alongside the aforementioned “utter disappointment” of AliExpress and X, the report gives the same overall red rating to Bing, SnapChat and Zalando, saying their transparency tools also lack vital data and functionality.

Compliance theater is a concept familiar to EU privacy watchers when it comes to the design of consent flows for collecting permission from web users to track and profile their online activity for mircotargeted advertising. Judging by the report findings, something similar may be playing out in platforms’ early responses to DSA demands for ads transparency. Many appear to be seeing how little they can get away with, perhaps with the aim of testing how the Commission, which oversees compliance, responds; or just because they prefer to direct more of their resources into generating revenue than addressing legal compliance.

Around a dozen tech giants that offer very large platforms and/or search engines, which the report refers to as VLOs, face the strictest level of DSA regulation — including the requirement to publish an ads library. Mozilla and CheckFirst stress-tested ad libraries associated with the following e-commerce, social networking and marketplace platforms between December 2023 and January 2024: AliExpress, Alphabet (Google Search and YouTube), Apple App Store, Bing,, LinkedIn, Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Pinterest, SnapChat, TikTok, X and Zalando — conducting independent tests aimed at assessing key issues like the tools’ functionality and reliability.

“We examine factors such as the depth of information provided regarding the advertisement and its advertiser, the targeting criteria employed, and the ad’s reach. Additionally, we evaluate the completeness of the ad repository, the availability of historical data, and the accessibility, consistency, and documentation of the tools provided,” the authors wrote, noting also that most (but not all) platforms provide a separate web-based ad repository and an API — hence they assessed these discrete implementations individually.

“Major gaps”

They do note there has been some developments since they carried out their transparency tools tests. The study is therefore only a snapshot of where things stood about half a year after the late August compliance deadline for VLOs.

They also haven’t assessed some deeper elements, such as the accuracy of information platforms provide, i.e. about who is paying for ads. Influencer or branded content is also not assessed. But the tests allow analysis of the pace of progress since compliance day, as well as enabling basic comparisons between platform offerings and shortcomings.

Among several key findings in the report are concerns related to accuracy issues and missing data. “Our accuracy testing found many cases where ads in the user interface were not found in the ad repository,” they note, adding: “This can limit the usefulness and trustworthiness of the repositories as a transparency tool.”

We feel there are major gaps between the spirit of the EU regulation and these repositories in practice, which are supposed to ‘facilitate supervision and research into emerging risks brought about by the distribution of advertising online’,” the report authors conclude, pointing out that in the case of X, for example, it only provides a CSV file for download, which they also found to be “curiously slow.” (They argue that this type of historical access is “only useful if you already know everything about the ad you’re searching for,” suggesting that X, under divisive billionaire owner Elon Musk, is essentially attempting to kneecap independent research, even as he claims to respect the law.)

The social network formerly known as Twitter was the first platform to be formally investigated by the EU for suspected breaches of the DSA, including in the area of data access for researchers. That probe, which was opened in December, remains ongoing. But if DSA breaches are confirmed, X is positioned first in line to receive a hefty fine.

Also highlighting how platforms are kicking against the EU’s transparency mandate, at the time the report was compiled, Amazon was not offering an ad library at all — after being granted a temporary exemption from the obligation by an EU court last fall.

A higher court subsequently reversed that decision, late last month, so the e-commerce giant will have to put its promotional laundry on the line for external perusal after all. But, as the report suggests, it’s all too easy for platforms to inject intentional friction into transparency tools, whether by restrictive design or sloppy implementation or both. This undermines researchers’ ability to interrogate technosocial impacts and ad-driven business models, by making finding, sorting and filtering data about ads they’ve monetized much harder than it should be.

The report contains a series of recommendations to drive transparency on platforms, including design changes tech giants could implement, such as making ad libraries public without requiring a login; allowing unrestricted browsing; and offering enhanced search functionalities such as supporting searches by keywords, advertiser, country and date range and allowing filtering and ordering of results, to name a few of the suggested changes.

They also suggests steps for enforcers, such as developing guidelines for ads transparency that set minimum standards for what platforms must deliver in web repositories and APIs; and requiring the use of standardized APIs for research access to boost usability and enable cross-platform research.

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