European publishers launch competition case against Google  – EURACTIV.com

The European Publishers Council (EPC) has filed a competition complaint against Google over what it describes as the tech company’s “stranglehold” on other businesses in the ad tech ecosystem.

The EPC charges Google with having “achieved end-to-end control of the ad tech value chain” and says its position as both buyer and seller in the same transactions has made its ad tech suite “rife with conflicts of interests”. 

“Far from managing its conflicts”, the EPC said in a statement, “Google has time and again taken advantage of its position to prioritise its own self-interests at the expense of the very consumers it is supposed to serve.” 

The EPC traces its complaint back to Google’s 2008 acquisition of ad company DoubleClick, which it says allowed the tech giant to monopolise the ad tech space with consequences that have been “devastating for publisher revenue.”

“This complaint presents a unique opportunity for the European Commission to rectify the problems that have arisen as a direct result of its 2008 clearance of the Google/DoubleClick merger, by imposing effective remedies that will restore competition in ad tech, for the benefit of European press publishers, marketers, and consumers”, said EPC Chairman Christian Van Thillo. 

Google argues in response that it competes with thousands of other providers when it comes to ad tech, adding that publishers are using tools provided by a range of players and receive an eightfold return on every euro spent on Google ads. 

“Online advertising underpins much of the content we enjoy and learn from online. It has enabled millions of small businesses to afford advertising for the first time, and for news publishers big and small, it’s created new opportunities and substantial new revenue streams that did not exist in the print age”, a spokesperson for the company said in response.

“When publishers choose to use our advertising services, they keep the majority of revenue and every year we pay out billions of dollars directly to the publishing partners in our ad network.”

The EPC hopes that recent findings by other global competition authorities have laid the groundwork for Commission action against Google on this issue, pointing to rulings such as that of the French antitrust watchdog last year, which found that Google had abused its dominance in the online advertising market. 

As a result of the decision, which marked another chapter in the long-running contest between major platforms and French publishers over so-called “neighbouring rights”, the company was ordered to pay a €220 million fine. 

“Competition authorities across the world have found that Google has restricted competition in ad tech, yet Google has been able to get away with minor commitments which do nothing to bring about any meaningful changes to its conduct. This cannot go on”, said Van Thillo of the EPC.

“It is high time for the European Commission to impose measures on Google that actually change, not just challenge, its behaviour”, he added. “The stakes are too high, particularly for the future viability of funding a free and pluralistic press.”

Also on Friday (11 February), the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) accepted proposals made by Google to address concerns over its proposed Privacy Sandbox, an initiative to bolster online privacy through, for example, the removal of third-party cookies. 

Last year the CMA opened an investigation into the proposals after concerns were raised that it could concentrate online advertising power in Google’s hands and hamper publishers’ abilities to generate revenue and therefore continue operating on and offline. 

The CMA has now accepted the legally binding commitments made by Google to address these concerns, among which is a pledge not to remove third-party cookies until all issues related to the competition implications of this have been addressed. 

Along with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the CMA will oversee the implementation of these commitments and a Monitoring Trustee is set to be appointed to ensure compliance in consultation with the antitrust watchdog. 

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi and Nathalie Weatherald]

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