MPs Threaten To Tame Google And Facebook, Again

It has been discussed many times, but a review into Google and Facebook's dominance in the UK digital advertising industry looks a little closer this week. According to reports in The Telegrapha group of MPs is claiming it is gathering support to have the pair formally investigated.

The likely mechanism will be via the Cairncross review, which is looking into whether threats to the British press represent a danger to British democracy. The review is looking at how market forces are hitting newspapers hard, particularly at the local level. The MPs are pursuing the idea that the review could call for a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into Google and Facebook's dominance.

The timeline would be preparation of the paperwork this autumn and then an announcement on an investigation that would begin in earnest next year. As ever, when politicians win over the headline writers with their plans for decisive action, the timelines suggest a more pedestrian pace.

With the latest push for a probe, there is the added annoyance among publishers that Google, in particular, has asked them to take on too much GDPR compliance risk when working with the platform. There are also accusations that this 'take it or leave it' approach has been mirrored in the tech giants' GDPR privacy policies which have been reported to data protection authorities across the EU. GDPR requires open and transparent agreement which has to come from the user with consent not applying if it is hidden away in updated terms and conditions or assumed in a tick box. 

Despite this, there is very little that is new, however. Tackling the duopoly has been discussed for years. It is a noble cause. Two companies accounting for a little over half of all digital advertising budgets in the UK is clearly not a healthy position for the media.

The big question mark that critics want the CMA to consider is whether the platforms in question could be separated from their sales teams. On the surface, it looks like a typical British compromise of, say, telling BT it has to open up its network to rival operators. The trouble is, how would this work with digital platforms? Regardless of who sold the ad units, regardless of whose machine bought the space, the money would still go to the platform owner, Google or Facebook. 

One can accuse YouTube and Facebook of allowing fake news to spread and not acting quickly enough on hate speech and terror-related material. However, when it comes to soaking up half the UK's digital advertising revenue budgets, its hard to think of a law or rule that has been broken, isn't it? The elephant in the room is the pair are the masters of data and finding audiences, as well as 'look-a-like" audiences for advertisers. Their reach and scale is hard to beat, and so the two continue to see revenues shoot through the roof. 

It's hard to see what can be done. Even the papers themselves generally use Google for their own search engines, rather than Bing. Against such dominance, what can be done?

Perhaps a focus on quality inventory from sites that support top-level journalism would be a good start. A kitemark for units being sold in content originating from great journalism would surely be an obvious step forward. Using Bing as the default search offered by a site might be another idea. Is there any way that British advertisers could turn away from Google tools? Could the industry stage a rebellion?

Other than that level of drastic action, it's a tricky one. You can split the big companies up, but ultimately, ad revenue will continue to roll into them, whether it's through a single input or multiple paths. 

MPs can talk about tackling the duopoly, but exactly how it might be done is vexing. 

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