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Google's display advertising business is under antitrust probe in Italy

Natasha Lomas
·5-min read
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 24: A Google logo is displayed during the Viva Technologie show at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on May 24, 2018 in Paris, France. Viva Technology, the new international event brings together 5,000 startups with top investors, companies to grow businesses and all players in the digital transformation who shape the future of the internet. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 24: A Google logo is displayed during the Viva Technologie show at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on May 24, 2018 in Paris, France. Viva Technology, the new international event brings together 5,000 startups with top investors, companies to grow businesses and all players in the digital transformation who shape the future of the internet. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

Italy's competition authority has opened an antitrust investigation into Google's display ad business -- adding another allegation of abuse of a dominant position to the tech giant's regulatory woes.

In a press release announcing the action the AGCM said it "questions the discriminatory use of the huge amount of data collected through its various applications, preventing rivals from competing effectively as well as adversely affecting consumers".

The probe follows a complaint by local ad lobby group the IAB Italy, per Reuters, which says the investigation must be concluded by November 2021.

Specifically, the AGCM said it suspects Google of what it refers to as "internal/external discriminatory conduct" -- by refusing to provide competitors with Google ID decryption keys and excluding third-party tracking pixels.

"At the same time, Google has allegedly used tracking elements enabling its advertising intermediation services to achieve a targeting capability that some equally efficient competitors are unable to replicate," it adds.

We've reached out to Google for comment on the allegations. Update: A company spokesperson has now sent this statement:

Digital advertising helps Italian businesses find customers and supports the websites and content creators that people know and love. The changes highlighted in the investigation were in part to protect user privacy and respond to GDPR requirements. We’ll continue to work constructively with the Italian authorities on these important areas so that everyone can make the most of the web.

The move comes as Google is being sued on home turf by the US Department of Justice (DoJ), which filed an antitrust case earlier this month -- following a 16 month investigation -- alleging Google is “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising in the United States.”

The Italian case also looks interesting as Google has been seeking to reframe the debate around online ad targeting vs privacy -- announcing an initiative called Privacy Sandbox last year.

Its aim is to evolve open web standards towards a middle ground between Internet users' privacy and content providers' hunger for information to target visitors with ads (as well as, of course, its own people-profiling monetization model as an adtech giant) -- proposing a technique called federated learning of cohorts (FloC) which it bills as a "privacy-preserving" mechanism to enable ad targeting without individual tracking.

But as part of that standards push, this January Google announced it was dialling up a plan to phase out support for third party tracking cookies -- saying it now wanted to do so within the next two years. So it's not so much an 'evolution' as Google cranking its market power lever.

While others in the browser space have also been clamping down on trackers, Google's dominance of the online ad market means there are clear competition risks to it unilaterally shutting the door on third party trackers while maintaining its own lucrative access to Internet users' data. And that seems to be the crux of the Italian competition authority's concern.

Google has previously been found to be dominant in search by the European Commission -- putting requirements on it to avoid abusing its market power to advance in other verticals.

The AGCM suggests that the conduct it's investigating could have a significant impact on competition across the digital advertising space, as well as flagging the potential for "wide repercussions on competitors and consumers".

"The absence of competition in the intermediation of digital advertising, in fact, might reduce the resources allocated to website producers and publishers, thus impoverishing the quality of content directed to end customers," it writes, also suggesting that a lack of "effective competition based on merits" could discourage the development of innovative new adtech and ad techniques that are less intrusive for consumers.

So, in other words, Google's dominance of the digital ad space could be damaging both publishers and Internet users, and holding back the development of genuinely privacy-preserving adtech.

Plenty of such concerns have been raised elsewhere about the market distorting power of the adtech duopoly.

In a final report into the online ad market this summer, the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) concluded that the market power of Google and Facebook is now so great that a new regulatory approach -- and a dedicated regulator -- is needed to address what it described as "wide ranging and self reinforcing" concerns.

"Weak competition in search and social media leads to reduced innovation and choice and to consumers giving up more data than they would like. Weak competition in digital advertising increases the prices of goods and services across the economy and undermines the ability of newspapers and others to produce valuable content, to the detriment of broader society," the CMA warned.

"Our concern is that such platforms have an incentive to interpret data protection regulation in a way that entrenches their own competitive advantage, including by denying third parties access to data that is necessary for targeting, attribution, verification and fee or price assessment while preserving their right to use this data within their walled gardens," it added.

The report concluded that there is a "compelling case for the development of a pro-competition ex ante regulatory regime, to oversee the activities of online platforms funded by digital advertising" -- something Google has been lobbying the European Commission not to do as regional lawmakers shape new pan-EU rules for gatekeeper platforms.

Per the AGCM, online advertising in Italy was worth more than €3.3 billion in 2019, representing 22% of the resources of the media sector -- with such sales being the second most important source of revenue in the sector.