French antitrust watchdog fines Google €150m over unclear rules for its ad platform

French antitrust watchdog fines Google €150m over unclear rules for its ad platform
Legal

France’s competition authority has issued a €150 million antitrust fine against Google for abusing its dominant position in the search advertising market, with opaque, unpredictable, and arbitrarily applied rules for its ad platform, according to Reuters

It’s the first fine issued by French antitrust authorities against Google, which is under heightened scrutiny in the rest of Europe and the US. 

The move follows a four-year investigation, sparked by an accusation from the media company Gibmedia that Google had suspended its ad account without notice. Gibmedia manages a variety of websites providing directions, weather forecasts, corporate data and other services. 

“The way the rules are applied give Google a power of life or death over some small businesses that live only on this kind of service,” according to the watchdog’s head, Isabelle de Silva.

The investigation found that Google’s rules for advertisements were confusing and inconsistently applied, allowing Google to wield too much power over companies that depend on the ads. It found Google’s interpretation of the rules had shifted significantly over time, creating insecurity for advertisers. 

“This allows Google to apply [the rules] in a discriminatory or inconsistent manner. This leads to damage both for advertisers and for search engine users,” the watchdog said in a press release

It also suggested that elements of the ad rules promote a content policy from advertisers that benefits Google’s ad services. 

Google controls a vast majority of the search market share in France—90 percent of online searches are conducted on the platform, which controls 80 percent of the online search ad market. According to antitrust authorities, this means Google has a responsibility to offer fair access with transparent and objective rules. 

“One of the great principles of competition law is that with great power comes great responsibility,” de Silva said. 

Google has argued that it suspended ads from Gibmedia because their websites presented deceptive and unclear billing terms for consumers, an allegation that Gibmedia has denied. Google says it will appeal the watchdog’s decision. 

While it’s the first French antitrust fine issued against Google, the tech firm has already been fined in France over privacy practices, improper data collection, breaking Europe’s “right to be forgotten” rule, and failing to offer transparent and accessible data consent policies. In September, they agreed to pay almost €1 billion for failing to fully declare tax activities in France. 

Photo by The Pancake of Heaven! [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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