Google has abused its dominant position in the adtech sector to engage in anti-competitive practices, harming the global media and newspaper publishers’ ad revenues. As countries across the world wake up to this threat and begin to take appropriate action, the issue has exposed the inadequacy in India’s competition regime to address the issue.
Alphabet Inc.’s digital giant Google has established itself as the largest digital advertising platform in India andaccumulated around ₹25,000 crores in ad revenue in 2022.
However, the underlying phenomena behind such success lies within the monopolisation of advertisement technology (adtech) by Google.
The tech giant is under attack in various jurisdictions, such as the European Union (EU), UK and US, for holding a dominant position in the advertising sector.
There have been instances of questioning Google’s practices in India as well. However, no report has been filed against the actions of the company yet. Monopolisation of adtech poses an immense threat to the viability of the current digital advertising mechanism.
Indian media houses and publishers are losing revenue due to Google’s monopoly. The present competition regime in India, along with theDigital Competition Act, seem inadequate to address the issue.
Thus, this article seeks to examine how Google gained traction to monopolise adtech, and its implications in the digital advertising sector.
This article will further explore the various steps taken by the commissions in several jurisdictions, and suggest implementable measures to address the impending threat of absolute monopolisation of adtech in India.
The three mergers that buttressed Google’s adtech monopoly
Publishers and advertisers across the world primarily utilise three main adtech services to facilitate their ads: publisher ad servers (to manage ad spaces), ad buying tools (to buy ads), and ad exchanges (wherein the supply and demand converge).
Google is under attack in various jurisdictions, such as the EU, UK and US, for holding a dominant position in the advertising sector.
Google acquired prominent service providers in these categories, namely; DoubleClick (2008), AdX (2008), and AdMeld (2011) and other nascent competitors, to position itself as a tech giant which could “control and manipulate” selling and buying of digital ads.
This merger led to the creation of Google’s own “AdTech stack”, which includes publisher ad server as Google Ad Manager, ad exchange as AdX, and two buying services: DV360 and Google Ads.
Concretisation of such power was pursued through various contentious tactics such as prioritisation of Google’s own transactions through ad-exchange, and pressurising news outlets in adoptingalternative webpage format.
Consequently, Google now controls the digital tools which are utilised by every prominent publisher to sell and buy ads on their websites, and the advertising exchange technology to connect buyers and sellers.
Google’s subversion of competition in internet adtech
Post these acquisitions, Google continued to grow into the adtech monopoly that it is today. Google generated US $54.5 billion in ad revenue fromJuly through September 2022 alone, an increase of 2.5 percent from the same quarter of 2021.
The casualties of such a dominant position are the newspapers, media houses and local businesses that alsodependon digital advertisements. The precarious relationship between Google and these other businesses is evident, as Google quintupled its earnings in the past decade, the annual advertising revenue of US newspaperscollectively decreased from US $49.4 billion in 2005 to US $9.6 billion in 2020.
The continual decrease in ad revenue of newspapers and small businesses is due to the lack of options and coercion into choosing Google’s ad services, which allows Google to take nearly35 percent of the earnings from digital advertisers.
This leads to excessive revenue cuts, excruciating layoffs in the industry, and readers having to face paywalls due to businesses facing diminishing yields. Major publishers have stated that it is very difficult or nearly impossible tobuy or sell advertising without utilising Google’s ad services.
Moreover, the advertisers and ad agencies in India have so far abstained from lodging complaints against the giant, as they are heavily dependent on it due to a lack of other opportunities.
Further, the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) has not yet intervened in the matter to protect the newspapers and other advertising agencies being affected by Google’s monopolisation.
Google’s monopolisation has led to an anti-competitive environment within the advertising sphere, as the nascent adtech competitors are subverted, preventing improvisation of marketing in creative ways.
Indian media houses and publishers are losing revenue due to Google’s monopoly.
Further, the holding of such a dominant position by Google also leads to a collection of unnecessary personal data of users in the use of micro-targeted advertising tactics.
In summation, Google’s anti-competitive behaviour has led to acquisition of competitors, forced adoption of Google’s tools, distortion in auction competition, and auction manipulation.
Ironically, Google’s own AI-powered chatbot, ‘Bard’, in one of its responses, stated that Google has a “monopoly on the digital advertising market”, which has allowed the company to engage “in anti-competitive behaviour”.
The adverse effects due to lack of transparency
The adverse effects of the present adtech monopoly upon the news media and small businesses are enormous. Threestudieshave shown that nearly50 percentof spendings in digital media go to intermediaries such as Google, rather than the publishers displaying the advertisements.
Although Google claims that it does not take more than30 percent of the amount of money spent on ads, the company has faced backlash over the past few months due to lack of transparency in transactions.
An Indian STEP and Business Incubator Association (ISBA) (STEP: Science and Technology Entrepreneurs Parks) study revealed that15 cents of the amount spent on ads could not be accounted for.
Thus,multiple antitrust investigations have scrutinised such behaviour and EU’s competition regulator fined Google US $10 billion for the unaccounted expenditure, followed by fines in the US, Australia, France, Germany and the UK.
Furthermore, Google took undue advantage of its position— as in a 2018 deal with Facebook, Google gave Facebook aleg up in their online advertising auctions, leading to unfair advantages when Facebook used Google’s advertising exchange.
Actions taken across the world
Google’s adtech dominance is a global phenomenon. The first probe started in 2020, when the UK Competition and Market Authorityreported thatGoogle “has more than a 90 percent share of the £7.3 billion search advertising market in the UK”, and a class actionlawsuit was filed beforethe UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal against Google.
In 2021, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissionconcluded that Google had abused its dominant position to favour its own adtech services. In the same year, the EUinitiated a similar investigation andfound that it had violatedArticle 102 of Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), resulting in a €220 million fine by the French authority.
Although Google claims that it does not take more than 30 percent of the amount of money spent on ads, the company has faced backlash over the past few months due to lack of transparency in transactions.
Pursuant to this, the European Union passed theDigital Markets Act, to prevent platforms from favouring their own services over their competitors’. The EU also suggested that divestment of Googles’ adtech monopoly is the only viable solution.
In June, 2023,Gannett, a prominent US publisher, sued Google for monopolising the advertising technology sector.
India needs to step up
Indian media houses and newspaper outlets have benefitted from the exposure gained through Google’s ongoing monopolisation of the adtech sector, yet they have suffered heavy losses in ad revenues due to Google’s monopolistic dominance.
The advertisers and publishers are, thus, heavily dependent on Google for anything they can earn from the ad revenue.
The Competition Commission of India (CCI) had fined Google ₹1,300 crore for abusing its dominant position with regards to android mobile devices. However, the CCI is yet to address the issue pertaining to the unfair revenue sharing terms.
Google’s anti-competitive behaviour has led to acquisition of competitors, forced adoption of Google’s tools, distortion in auction competition, and auction manipulation.
Furthermore, India is ill-equipped to address such technological issues in future as the current competition regime as well as proposed Digital Competition Act fail to recognise and effectively address this issue.
India can implement some necessary changes into its regime by incorporating provisions from the US’ new anti-trust legislation, which directs companies to sell “portions of their operations” if their digital ad transactions surpass US $20 billion.
Furthermore, India can incorporate measures for companies to disclose their source of revenue if the ad transactions surpass a certain threshold.
Companies which simultaneously act as sellers, buyers and regulators, must be divided into small structures to prevent monopolies that stifle innovation and transparency. Lastly, the new changes must include limitations on the user data being collected for advertising.
Google’s monopolistic tactics have been lucrative in the past decade but at the expense of publishers’ and news media’s unequal share in ad revenue. Various countries have recognised the threat of such anti-competitive measures and taken action against the tech giant with an aim to divest the monopoly in the sector. Furthermore, India’s recognition of the dominant position of Google in the recent Android case, calls for CCI to take action against the giant in respect of the ad tech monopoly.
Lastly, the Indian competition regime requires amendments to address such niche technological issues and ensure healthy competition in the market.