Voice assistants under fire in IoT competition report

The report notes that competition is dampened in the voice assistant market due to the dominance of a small number of vertically integrated companies. [ [Shutterstock / Gorodenkoff]

This article was updated to include a comment from Amazon. 

Voice assistants have come under particular scrutiny in the conclusions of a Commission competition inquiry into the consumer Internet of Things (IoT) sector. 

Among the issues raised in the inquiry’s final report, published on Thursday (20 January), are concerns over voice assistants’ data collection, exclusivity and tying practices, their gatekeeper role when it comes to accessing other IoT services, and their lack of interoperability. 

The report, which draws on stakeholder feedback, also notes that competition is dampened in the voice assistant market due to the dominance of a small number of vertically integrated companies. 

These companies, namely Google, Apple and Amazon, which operate three of the most widely used voice assistants – Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa – “have built their own ecosystems within and beyond the consumer IoT sector” and therefore determine the process of third-party integration into the sector, the report says.

The inquiry was announced in July 2020, as part of the Commission’s Digital Decade strategy, and a preliminary report was published in June 2021, in response to which the submissions of stakeholders from the consumer IoT sector were gathered. 

“The consumer Internet of Things sector is increasingly becoming part of our everyday life”, said Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager.

“This is a market with high barriers to entry, few vertically integrated players and concerns about access to data, interoperability or exclusivity practices amongst others.”

Findings

When it comes to data, the report notes that a concern frequently raised by stakeholders was the accumulation of data by voice assistant providers, and the potential for the behavioural insights provided being monetised for digital advertising. Third-party product and service providers also raised the issue that the data they collect could be used by larger companies to develop competing offers.

The inquiry’s preliminary findings, the report says, “indicate that in particular the leading voice assistant providers can impose standard terms and conditions that limit the data access and use for third parties, while reserving extensive data access and use possibilities for themselves.”

The Commission also found that the majority of smart devices have a single built-in voice assistant, despite some manufacturers saying that they would like to provide more and that there is customer demand for multiple options to be included. 

Attempts to secure exclusivity of one voice assistant on a device, the inquiry concluded, could raise competition concerns if other programmes are therefore prevented from being built in. 

Bundling is also noted as an issue in the report. Smart device manufacturers, it says, have raised concerns that voice assistants, along with other types of software and applications, are being tied together by providers. 

Several respondents also pointed to the role of leading voice assistant providers as intermediaries between users and the smart device or consumer IoT service provider as a potential issue. 

Their concerns focus on the fact that they are often dependent on leading voice assistant providers for all contact with users, but worry that too direct a relationship between the two could result in a loss of brand recognition. 

Process issues were also raised, with many pointing out that these leading providers often implement their own set-up and on-boarding processes, preventing device manufacturers and service providers from collecting relevant data and creating potential issues in terms of user contact moving forward, for example. 

The lack of interoperability in the consumer IoT sector, the report adds, has created at times “de facto standards”. This interoperability, the inquiry found, stems from technology fragmentation, a lack of common standards and the dominance of proprietary technology. 

These factors converge, it says, to restrict compatibility and interoperability, limiting users’ choice and raising the possibility that they become “locked-in” to certain products and services.

Meaningful integration and interoperability, the report says, requires “technical and business engagement” among companies in the sector, but it notes that, in reality, integration is often shaped by the leading providers able to unilaterally determine the requirements in place. 

An Amazon spokesperson told EURACTIV, “There is intense competition from many companies in the smart home sector. There will not, and should not, be one winner. We recognized this from the beginning and designed Alexa accordingly.”

“Today, Alexa is compatible with over 140,000 smart home products, and we make it easy for device makers to integrate Alexa directly into their own products. We also founded the Voice Interoperability Initiative – now 90 companies strong – which is committed to giving millions of customers the choice and flexibility to access multiple voice services on a single device”, they added.

Digital Markets Act interaction

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, told EURACTIV that the Commission was right to focus on data collection and interoperability and that the concerns raised in these areas were similar those driving the Digital Markets Act (DMA).

However, the extent to which the DMA helps to solve these issues, Meyers said, will depend on its final shape once trialogue negotiations conclude, as well as how the Commission enforces it. 

“Because IoT devices are more innovative and the market is still maturing, competition intervention poses more risks than it does in markets where it is more obvious that players are dominant and entrenched”, he said.

Whether devices such as virtual assistants are classed as “core platform services” or “ancillary services” will also affect this, he added, as, if designated as the former, they’ll be subject to much heavier regulation: “Essentially, this will depend on how much scope the DMA gives big tech firms to argue that they are not yet entrenched in IoT markets.”

Despite this, he said, oversight of the sector by the Commission was needed: “It’s likely that there will be many more complaints that aren’t covered by the DMA rules at all, and where competition law enforcement will still be needed.”

EU parliament adopts regulation targeting internet giants

EU lawmakers adopted their version of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) in a plenary vote on Wednesday (15 December), formalizing their mandate to enter interinstitutional negotiations on this key piece of digital legislation with the European Council and Commission.

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