European Commission investigates conduct by Google in the online adtech sector

June 24, 2021

The European Commission has opened a formal antitrust investigation to assess whether Google has violated EU competition rules by favouring its own online display advertising technology services in the adtech supply chain, to the detriment of competing providers of advertising technology services, advertisers and online publishers. In particular, the investigation will consider if Google is distorting competition by restricting access by third parties to user data for advertising purposes on websites and apps, while reserving such data for its own use.

Many publishers rely on online display advertising to fund free online content for consumers. In 2019, display advertising spending in the EU was estimated to be approximately €20 billion. Google provides several adtech services that intermediate between advertisers and publishers to display ads on web sites or mobile apps.

The Commission’s investigation will focus on display advertising where Google offers services both to advertisers and publishers. As part of its in-depth investigation, the Commission will examine: 

  • The obligation to use Google’s services Display & Video 360 (DV360) and/or Google Ads to purchase online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The obligation to use Google Ad Manager to serve online display advertisements on YouTube, and potential restrictions placed by Google on the way in which services competing with Google Ad Manager are able to serve online display advertisements on YouTube.
  • The apparent favouring of Google’s ad exchange AdX by DV360 and/or Google Ads and the potential favouring of DV360 and/or Google Ads by AdX.
  • The restrictions placed by Google on the ability of third parties, such as advertisers, publishers or competing online display advertising intermediaries, to access data about user identity or user behaviour which is available to Google’s own advertising intermediation services, including the Doubleclick ID.
  • Google’s announced plans to prohibit the placement of third party cookies on Chrome and replace them with the Privacy Sandbox set of tools, including the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.
  • Google’s announced plans to stop making the advertising identifier available to third parties on Android smart mobile devices when a user opts out of personalised advertising, and the effects on online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.

If proven, the practices under investigation may breach EU competition rules on anticompetitive agreements between companies (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)) and/or on the abuse of a dominant position (Article 102 TFEU).

The Commission says that it will take into account the need to protect user privacy under EU data protection laws, including the GDPR. It says that competition law and data protection laws must work hand in hand to ensure that display advertising markets operate on a level playing field in which all market participants protect user privacy in the same manner.

The Commission will now carry out its in-depth investigation as a matter of priority. It emphasises that the opening of a formal investigation does not prejudge its outcome.