The European Commission, the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, said Tuesday that its investigation, which has been under way informally since at least 2019, will look at a broad array of allegedly anticompetitive business practices around the Alphabet Inc. GOOG -0.06% unit’s brokering of advertisements and sharing of user data with advertisers across websites and mobile apps—one of the newest areas of antitrust scrutiny for the company.
Some of the EU’s investigation will cover similar ground to a case filed last year against Google by a group of U.S. states led by Texas. Similar areas include Google’s allegedly favoring its own ad-buying tools in the advertising auctions it runs.
But the EU probe will also cover complaints that haven’t yet been the subject of formal inquiries anywhere, including Google’s alleged exclusion of competitors from brokering ad buys on Google-owned video site YouTube.
The EU investigation is also examining Google’s plans to block certain kinds of user-tracking technologies on its platforms, such as the Chrome browser and Android mobile operating system. Curtailing such tracking responds, at least in part, to pressure from privacy regulators and activists, but has led to antitrust complaints from competitors in the advertising-technology industry.
“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetize their online services,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief. “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 spokeswoman said European businesses choose to use Google’s advertising tools “because they’re competitive and effective,” adding that the company “will continue to engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions.”
The opening of a case is a key procedural step in European competition probes. If the commission finds evidence of wrongdoing, it can then file formal charges that could lead to fines of up to 10% of a company’s global annual revenue and orders to change behavior. But the commission could also close the case without charges.
The EU’s new Google case is the latest example of a wave of antitrust enforcement in Europe. The commission in April filed formal charges against Apple Inc. for allegedly abusing its control over the distribution of music-streaming apps, including Spotify. In November, it filed formal charges against Amazon.com Inc. for allegedly using non-public data it gathers from third-party sellers to unfairly compete against them. Both companies denied wrongdoing.
Tuesday’s case is the first time the commission has formally opened one against Google since it issued three antitrust decisions against the search giant, backed by $9 billion in fines, between 2015 and 2018. Google’s detractors have argued that those cases haven’t slowed Google’s business, which increased profit 17% in 2020 to $40.27 billion.
While the EU case is unique for bringing together many different strands of complaints about Google’s role in digital advertising, some of the areas of the EU case have been the focus of other cases in recent months. The group of U.S. states led by Texas, for instance, sued Google in December 2020 for allegedly operating a digital-advertising monopoly, leveraging its power in one part of the advertising chain to force publishers or advertisers to use other Google-owned tools. That case is ongoing.
Google has also settled, or is in the process of settling, probes on some of the same topics that the EU is investigating. For instance, the company offered concessions to U.K. antitrust regulators early this month to close a British probe into Google’s plans to remove a technology called third-party cookies from its Chrome browser—one of the issues the EU said it would investigate.
Companies that use third-party cookies to track individuals’ browsing habits across multiple websites have complained that Google’s change could leave them at a disadvantage. Google promised to treat competitors fairly and give the U.K. authority at least 60 days notice before removing cookies, so the authority can review its plan and potentially impose changes.
To settle a French antitrust case, Google also agreed earlier this month to pay nearly $270 million and to make it easier for competing advertising-tech companies to use its ad tech tools. That case is also similar to one line of inquiry for the European Commission, which is investigating whether Google’s ad exchange, AdX, and ad buying tools, called DV360 and Google Ads, have given unfair advantages to each other.
Publishers and ad-tech competitors have complained for years that Google’s ownership of some of the most widely used tools for buying, selling and auctioning ads could lead it to act unfairly. They have also said that Google’s brokering of third-party ad sales as well as its ownership of its own ad-supported products, such as YouTube, creates conflicts of interest.