EU To Investigate Google Over Ad-Tech Systems, Privacy Plans

European antitrust regulators have launched an investigation into Google's ad-tech operations, including whether the company's plans to improve consumer privacy will give it an unfair advantage against other ad-tech providers.

“We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack,” European Commission official Margrethe Vestager stated Tuesday. “We will also be looking at Google's policies on user tracking to make sure they are in line with fair competition.”

The authorities said their investigation will cover several areas, including Google's requirements that advertisers use its services to purchase and display ads on YouTube.

The probe will also focus on several of Google's privacy moves, including its plan to block third-party cookies on the Chrome browser, and to stop transmitting Android device identifiers when users opt out of receiving personalized ads.



“The formal investigation will notably examine whether 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,” the European Commission stated Tuesday.

Google has repeatedly vowed to impose the same restrictions on its own ad-services products (including the former DoubleClick) as on outside ad-tech companies.

“We have explicitly stated that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use such identifiers in our products,” the company wrote earlier this month in a blog post outlining commitments the company made to regulators in the UK.

“Building on this principle, the commitments confirm that once third-party cookies are phased out, our ads products will not access synced Chrome browsing histories (or data from other user-facing Google products) in order to track users to target or measure ads on sites across the web,” Google added. “Further, our ads products will also not access synced Chrome browsing histories or publishers' Google Analytics accounts to track users for targeting and measuring ads on our own sites, such as Google Search.” 

A company spokesperson also said it will “engage constructively with the European Commission to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to European businesses and consumers.”

The European Commission specifically said it will focus on whether the proposals set out in Google's “Privacy Sandbox” will have an effect on “online display advertising and online display advertising intermediation markets.”

While the Privacy Sandbox outlines several different plans, the controversial Federated Learning of Cohorts is among the most well-publicized. That plan appears to involve placing Chrome users into audience segments based on their web-browsing activity, and then transmitting data about those segments directly to publishers through a Javascript API.

Google is facing several antitrust lawsuits in the United States, including one brought by a coalition of states led by Texas. The authorities in that action allege that Google rigged auctions for online display ads, and that the Federated Learning of Cohorts system is anti-competitive.

The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has also criticized the cohort-based targeting proposal -- though for reasons related to privacy, not antitrust.

That organization calls the plan a “terrible idea,” adding that the proposed targeting system will make it impossible for Chrome users to surf the web without also transmitting information about their potential interests.

“Every site you visit will have a good idea about what kind of person you are on first contact, without having to do the work of tracking you across the web,” the group wrote.

In the U.S., the self-regulatory privacy group Network Advertising Initiative -- which represents many small ad-tech companies as well as Google -- hasn't taken a position on whether Google's plans are anticompetitive.

David LeDuc, vice-president for policy at the organization, says the group supports plans to advance privacy, but believes “enhanced privacy can be achieved at the same time as maintaining a competitive digital advertising marketplace.”

He adds that the organization thinks policymakers “should be keeping a keen eye on all of the large platforms,” to make sure they're not placing other companies at a competitive disadvantage.

Google isn't the only large tech company facing antitrust complaints over privacy moves.

Business groups in Europe, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau France, have raised antitrust concerns about Apple's privacy moves, including its recent decision to require mobile developers to obtain users' explicit consent before tracking them across apps.

In March, French regulators declined to prohibit Apple from moving forward with the new settings.

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