The European Union has launched an antitrust investigation into Google’s massive advertising business, alleging that the company has harmed competitors by making it more difficult for brands to reach consumers and publishers to fund their content.
The formal investigation will look into whether Google (GOOGL) is distorting competition by restricting access to user data for advertising purposes while reserving such data for its own use, the European Commission announced on Tuesday.
“Google collects data to be used for targeted advertising purposes, it sells advertising space and also acts as an online advertising intermediary. So Google is present at almost all levels of the supply chain for online display advertising,” EU chief antitrust official Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
“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 said that the company would engage constructively with the European Commission “to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”
Google has already been accused of operating an illegal monopoly in the markets for online search and search advertising in several antitrust cases in the United States, including one brought by the federal government.
Advertising accounts for roughly 80% of the company’s revenue. Google’s revenues in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa totaled $17 billion in the three months ended March 31, making it the company’s second most important region after the Americas.
In 2019, the European Union’s total display advertising spending was around €20 billion ($24 billion). It’s a market dominated by Google and Facebook (FB), which is already under investigation by EU regulators over allegations that its data-mining practices give it an unfair competitive advantage.
Google was fined €220 million ($270 million) by France’s competition authority earlier this month for “abusing its dominant position” in the online advertising market to the detriment of rival platforms and publishers.
The authority accused Google of giving Google Ad Manager, its ad management platform for large publishers, “preferential treatment.” According to the watchdog, it did so by favoring its own online ad marketplace, AdX, where publishers sell space to advertisers in real time.
As part of the deal with the French government, Google agreed to make it easier for publishers in France to use its data and tools in conjunction with other ad technologies. “We will be testing and developing these changes over the coming months before rolling them out more broadly, including some globally,” the company said in a statement on June 7.
Google offers a number of ad tech services that act as a middleman between advertisers and publishers, allowing ads to be displayed on websites and mobile apps. The EU probe will concentrate on a number of issues, including the requirement to use its services to buy or serve ads on Google or YouTube.
“A level playing field is of the essence for everyone in the supply chain,” said Vestager.
“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. We will also be looking at Google’s policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition,” she added.
According to Google, online advertising competition has made ads more affordable, reduced ad tech fees, and given publishers and advertisers more options. The company also claims that when publishers use its products, they keep about 70% of the revenue, and that the largest advertisers buy ads on four or more platforms.