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Google’s ad-tech tactics spark yet another EU antitrust investigation

June 22, 2021, 10:42 AM UTC

Google, which has already been hit with $9 billion in European antitrust fines, now faces yet another formal investigation in the EU.

This time the probe is about Google’s weighty position in the field of online display-ad technology—a sector that was worth around $24 billion in the EU a couple of years ago.

The European Commission’s antitrust division is worried that Google is distorting competition by not allowing other ad-tech firms to see certain data—about user identity and behavior—that it reserves for its own use.

If that is the case, the Commission said Tuesday, Google could be disadvantaging not only those ad-tech rivals but also advertisers and online publishers.

“Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary,” said the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, Margrethe Vestager, in a statement. “So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising. We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack.”

“A level playing field is of the essence for everyone in the supply chain. Fair competition is important—both for advertisers to reach consumers on publishers’ sites and for publishers to sell their space to advertisers, to generate revenues and funding for content.”

Antitrust and privacy

In what is yet another indication of antitrust and privacy regulation’s increasing confluence in the context of Big Tech, Vestager added that her unit will also examine “Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition.”

Google’s two display-ad platforms, Display & Video 360 (DV360) and Google Ads, are central to the probe. The Commission is looking at the fact that advertisers buying YouTube spots need to use these platforms to do so, along with Google’s “apparent favoring” of its own AdX ad exchange in the services.

Another major strand of the investigation involves Google’s recent moves to end third-party tracking of Chrome and Android users. While it is supposedly good for personal privacy, the shift has infuriated other ad-tech firms and publishers, who will not be able to target individuals as directly as they have done for years now.

Google and the U.K.’s antitrust and privacy regulators recently hammered out a deal that is currently open for consultation. If it goes through, Google would have to avoid discriminating against its advertising and ad-tech rivals in its post-cookie Privacy Sandbox technologies—and the changes it makes, under the British watchdogs’ gaze, would be applicable around the world.

“Thousands of European businesses use our advertising products to reach new customers and fund their websites every single day,” a Google spokesperson said in response to the Commission’s announcement. “They choose them because they’re competitive and effective. We will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”

Google’s most recent big EU antitrust fine, a $1.7 billion whopper levied in 2019, was also about advertising. However, that related to Google’s management of its AdSense for Search boxes that companies can include on their websites.

Earlier fines include $5 billion over Google’s stewardship of the Android mobile platform, levied in 2018, and a $2.7 billion fine the previous year over the overpromotion of Google’s shopping service in its search results.

Google also faces multiple antitrust lawsuits in the U.S., including a Texas state suit that deals with its ad-tech practices.

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