Google Commits To A More Level Ad Tech Playing Field In Big Antitrust Settlement With France

Google has agreed to pay a $268 million fine and make changes to its advertising busines to settle a precedent-setting anticompetition case in France.

No more laissez-faire.

Google has agreed to pay a $268 million fine and make changes to its advertising business to settle a precedent-setting anticompetition case in France.

The settlement, announced on Monday, was reached with the Autorité de la Concurrence (ADLC), France’s competition authority, and marks the first time that an antitrust regulator has been able to ding Google for unfairly promoting its own services in the online advertising sector to the detriment of the rest of the ecosystem.

In other words, guess we don’t have to say “allegedly” anymore.

Les concessions

Under the terms of the settlement, Google promised to ensure that all buyers, including those using a non-Google DSP to bid into a publisher’s header bidding set-up, will get equal access to data related to the outcome of Ad Manager auctions. It’s long been an industry gripe that Google advantages its own buy side auctions for header bidding.

Google also committed to improve interoperability between Google Ad Manager and third-party ad servers and to give publishers the ability to set their own pricing rules and custom floors for ads that fall into sensitive categories, such as gambling and politics.

On top of that, Google said it’s “reaffirming” it will not place limits on a publisher’s ability to negotiate specific terms or pricing with other SSPs and will not use data from other SSPs to optimize bids in its exchange in a way that other supply-side platforms can’t reproduce.

If that last bit sounds familiar, it’s because unfair data use is the central allegation at the heart of Project Bernanke.

In April, The Wall Street Journal obtained mistakenly unredacted court filings as part of the Texas-led antitrust lawsuit against Google which appear to demonstrate that Google secretly relied on publisher ad server data fed into its ad buying systems as a way to suppress prices and gain market share.

It’s possible that the recent Project Bernanke revelations helped the French bolster its own probe of Google’s ad practices.

Facts of the case

The decision to sanction Google has “special significance because it is the first decision in the world to examine the complex algorithmic bidding processes by which online advertising works,” said Isabelle de Silva, president of the French competition authority, in a statement about the settlement.

Specifically, the French case focused on whether Google abused its dominant position in the ad server market and gave preferential treatment to its proprietary ad tech. Google was accused of allowing Google Ad Manager (formerly DoubleClick for Publishers) to favor Google’s own exchange.

France first launched its investigation in 2019 after receiving a joint complaint from a coalition of publishers led by News Corp, Le Figaro and Rossel, a Belgian media group.

The practices in question are “particularly serious,” according to the ADLC, because they penalized web publishers, app publishers and Google’s competitors in the SSP market.

It’s important to note that Google is not disputing or appealing the settlement.

And its avowal could be significant for other ongoing antitrust cases against Google, including the Texas case and the suit brought by the US Department of Justice. Google has officially acknowledged that it’s able to change its systems to make it easier for publishers to use data and operate in its ecosystem.

Although "the fine is immaterial for a company of Google's size and market dominance, the settlement with a major regulator affirms and strengthens the investigations and lawsuits globally against the company," said Jason Kint, CEO of publisher trade group Digital Context Next.

And if changes can be made in one market, why not globally?

Testing and rollout

According to Reuters, some of the changes Google has pledged to make to its ad tech tools and practices will be implemented by the first quarter of next year …

... just in time, it so happens, for the planned deprecation of third-party cookies in Chrome, which also happens to be a potential antitrust landline for Google. Looks like 2022 is going to be an interesting year.

To start the product updates will only apply to France – and only be mandatory for three years – although Google says it plans to test and develop them over the coming months “before rolling them out more broadly, including some globally.”

A Google spokeswoman told AdExchanger that, as of now, the global changes will include more robust support for header bidding and the custom pricing rules for sensitive ad categories.

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