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Google ad tech under EU investigation over antitrust concerns

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The European Commission has announced that it is beginning an investigation into alleged anti-competitive behaviour by Google, with a focus on whether the company violated competition rules by giving preferential treatment to its online ad tech services.

This investigation will look at whether Google favoured its own online display advertising services over those of rivals.

It will also scrutinise Google’s use of data for the purposes of advertising on websites and apps in order to determine whether it unfairly restricts rivals’ access to such data, reserving them for its own use. The investigation will additionally consider tracking of Android users via advertising identifiers and Google’s plans to remove third-party cookies in the Chrome web browser, which publishers – including news sites – rely on to generate income.

The investigation will span a great range of Google services, including Android OS, YouTube, Chrome, Google Ads, Display & Video 360, Google Ad Manager (used to 'auction' ad space on websites and apps) and AdX (used to manage these auctions).

Last year, Google generated a staggering $147bn in revenue from online advertising, spanning YouTube, Search, Gmail and other Google services – more than any other company in the world. Approximately 16 per cent of revenue came from its display or network business, which allows other companies to sell ads on their websites and apps using Google technology.

“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetise their online services,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner with responsibilities for competition and digital technologies. “Google collects data to be used for targeting advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary.

“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 Google spokesperson responded: “Thousands of European businesses use our advertising products to reach new customers and fund their websites every single day. 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.”

This marks the latest in a series of European antitrust investigations against the search giant, which have amounted to billions of euros in fines over the past decade. The EU fined Google €2.4bn for manipulating search engine results to promote its own shopping service in 2017; €4.3bn for exploiting the dominance of Android OS in 2018; and €1.5bn in 2019 for blocking rival online search advertisers.

Google’s advertising tech practices are also being scrutinised in the US, where the Justice Department and several states are suing the company for allegedly abusing its dominance in search ads.

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