Google was never really out of the EU antitrust picture. But with the European Commission opening a fourth investigation — this time into its adtech business — the search giant is definitely front and center again.
Between 2017 and 2019, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager fined Google over €8 billion after investigations into its search, mobile and search advertising services.
Some observers might have been hoping that would be the end of Google’s antitrust woes in Brussels. But the wide-ranging case opened on Tuesday means Google is likely in for another years-long probe that could end with another multi-billion-euro fine.
In reality, Google has remained on the EU watchdog’s radar. The Commission is still monitoring the controversial implementation of the fixes it imposed on the company’s practices in the Shopping (search) and Android (mobile) cases. Google is also one of the prime targets of the new rules the Commission proposed in December for digital gatekeepers; and it is under investigation in the U.K., Germany and France.
“Google will be perpetually under investigation unless they have a Microsoft moment when people at the very top of the company acknowledge the importance of antitrust,” said Damien Geradin, a competition lawyer acting for Google rivals who has insisted for years that the Commission open this new investigation.
Google’s head of competition in Europe last week said that recent concessions from the search giant in antitrust cases in France, the U.K. and the EU showed that the company had a pragmatic mindset. “Since I’ve been running these matters, my hope has been to find opportunities to be pragmatic and close things off quickly,” Oliver Bethell said.
In her new investigation, Vestager focuses on online advertising, which is “at the heart of how Google and publishers monetize their online services,” she said.
“We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack,” Vestager said in a statement.
Vestager referred to the multi-layered market of display advertising, where Google allegedly distorts competition by restricting access to user data for rivals’ advertising on websites and apps, while keeping such data for its own use.
A key difference with a few years ago is that Google is no longer alone. Over the past year, Vestager has sent formal charges to Amazon and Apple and opened a new investigation into Facebook. A complaint from Slack against Microsoft is still pending.
The new Google probe is a reminder that the Mountain View, California-based company remains a prime target for competition authorities worldwide. In the autumn of 2020, Google was sued three times in the U.S., following the same triple line of attack the European Commission pursued, with cases centered around Android, search and advertising. Google is also the only company against which the German competition authority has opened two investigations under a new procedure designed to proactively tackle Big Tech firms.
“Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary,” Vestager said. “So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising,” she added.
“We will also be looking at Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition,” Vestager said.
One notable feature in the case opened in Brussels on Tuesday is the Commission’s interest in YouTube. Brussels is seeking to establish the dominance of the popular video-streaming platform, and that Google uses that dominance to favor its own services, a person familiar with the investigation said.
“YouTube is a popular video platform for users, but the real question is whether YouTube is important for competition among products that support bidding for and serving of ads,” said Thomas Graf, a competition lawyer at Cleary Gottlieb who acts for Google.
Beyond YouTube, the EU’s new case is looking into a relatively broad range of issues, including obligations to use certain Google products such as “Display & Video 360” or Google Ad Manager; but also Google’s Privacy Sandbox and restrictions placed by the U.S. tech giant on the ability of third parties to access data.
Google said it will “continue to engage constructively” with the Commission, adding that its advertising products are “competitive and effective.”
If the Commission’s previous Google probes can serve as an example, the investigation is likely to be further narrowed down to focus on a subset of concerns. The issues with the Privacy Sandbox, for example, were covered by Google’s recent settlement with the U.K. competition authority. The company may well offer the same concessions to Brussels to close that part of the investigation.
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