NCLAT Asks Google, CCI, Others To File Replies Over Play Store Billing Policy

They have challenged the order passed by the Competition Commission of India (CCI), which on March 20, 2024, declined to grant interim relief against the Play Store billing policy

The appellate tribunal NCLAT on Friday directed tech giant Google and fair trade regulator CCI, among other respondents, to file their responses over the petitions filed against the Play Store billing policy.

A two-member NCLAT bench, after a brief hearing on Friday directed the respondents to file a reply within a week and counter reply, if any, and directed to list the matter on May 24 for the next hearing.

The appellate tribunal's direction came over petitions filed by the Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), Indian Digital Media Industry Foundation, People Interactive India, which operates the marriage portal, and Kuku FM operator Mebigo Labs.

They have challenged the order passed by the Competition Commission of India (CCI), which on March 20, 2024, declined to grant interim relief against the Play Store billing policy and restrain Google from collecting fees.

On March 20, CCI dismissed four petitions of Indian app companies filed against Google's new Play Store billing policy to levy an 11 to 26 per cent charge on in-app payments.

This was subsequently challenged by them before the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT). The Indian-origin app firms contended before CCI that Google's Play Store payment policies are anti-competitive.

However, CCI, in its order, made clear that nothing stated in this order shall be tantamount to a final expression of opinion on the merits of the case, and the Director General will conduct the investigation without being swayed in any manner whatsoever by the observations made herein.

"The commission is of the view that the informants have failed to meet the necessary criteria for grant of interim relief as propounded by the Supreme Court. The informants have not been able to project any higher level of prima facie case warranting a positive direction as sought for by the informants at the interim stage," CCI said in its order.

The petitions were seeking the regulator to restrain Google from collecting any fee for transactions involving paid downloads or in-app purchases on apps offering digital products/ services.

While there may be concerns about the fairness of Google's fee structure as outlined by the regulator in its prima facie order dated March 15, it is essential to recognise the costs and responsibilities associated with maintaining and operating app stores, CCI noted.

The order came after the Competition Commission of India (CCI), on March 15, ordered a probe against Google for alleged discriminatory practices with respect to its Play Store pricing policy after finding a prima facie violation of the competition law.

CCI then held that the tech giant's Users Choice Billing (UCB) payments policy was "prima facie" violative of the Competition Act 2002. The order for detailed investigation comes less than two years after CCI penalised and passed various directions against Google regarding Play Store policies.

The regulator's decision came on a raft of complaints that Google's updated payment policies in relation to its proprietary app store -- Google Play Store -- which is alleged to be in violation of the competition law.

The order also comes after Google removed some apps from the Play Store over payment issues and later, reinstated them. In their complaints, they alleged that the payment policies are stated to be impacting several stakeholders, including app developers, payment processors and users alike.

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