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Google hit with EUR 1.49 bn EU fine for antitrust advertising practices

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Google hit with EUR 1.49 bn EU fine for antitrust advertising practices

Margrethe Vestager - Photo © European Union 2019

(BRUSSELS) - The EU Commission fined Google EUR 1.49 billion Wednesday for breaching EU antitrust rules, saying restrictive clauses in its ads contracts with websites prevented rivals placing search adverts on those websites.

"Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites," said the Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestage: "This is illegal under EU antitrust rules."

She said the misconduct had lasted more than 10 years and had "denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate - and consumers the benefits of competition."

Websites such as newspaper websites, blogs or travel sites aggregators often have a search function embedded. When a user searches using this search function, the website delivers both search results and search adverts, which appear alongside the search result.

Through AdSense for Search, Google provides these search adverts to owners of "publisher" websites. Google is an intermediary, like an advertising broker, between advertisers and website owners that want to profit from the space around their search results pages. Therefore, AdSense for Search works as an online search advertising intermediation platform.

Google was by far the strongest player in online search advertising intermediation in the European Economic Area (EEA), with a market share above 70% from 2006 to 2016. In 2016 Google also held market shares generally above 90% in the national markets for general search and above 75% in most of the national markets for online search advertising, where it is present with its flagship product, the Google search engine, which provides search results to consumers.

It is not possible for competitors in online search advertising such as Microsoft and Yahoo to sell advertising space in Google's own search engine results pages. Therefore, the Commission says that third-party websites represent an important entry point for these other suppliers of online search advertising intermediation services to grow their business and try to compete with Google.

Google's provision of online search advertising intermediation services to the most commercially important publishers took place via agreements that were individually negotiated. The Commission has reviewed hundreds of such agreements in the course of its investigation and found that:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called "Premium Placement" clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google's adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google's competitorswere prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites' search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

Therefore, the EU executive says, Google first imposed an exclusive supply obligation, which prevented competitors from placing any search adverts on the commercially most significant websites. Then, Google introduced what it called its "relaxed exclusivity" strategy aimed at reserving for its own search adverts the most valuable positions and at controlling competing adverts' performance.

Google's practices covered over half the market by turnover throughout most of the period. Google's rivals were not able to compete on the merits, either because there was an outright prohibition for them to appear on publisher websites or because Google reserved for itself by far the most valuable commercial space on those websites, while at the same time controlling how rival search adverts could appear.

Google's practices amount to an abuse of Google's dominant position in the online search advertising intermediation market by preventing competition on the merits.

While market dominance is, as such, not illegal under EU antitrust rules, dominant companies have a special responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition, either in the market where they are dominant or in separate markets.

In other Google cases, the Commission fined Google €2.42 billion in June 2017 for abusing its dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to Google's own comparison shopping service.

And in July last year, the Commission fined Google €4.34 billion for illegal practices regarding Android mobile devices to strengthen the dominance of Google's search engine.

More information on today's decision is available on the Commission's competition website in the public case register under the case number 40411.


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