The French competition regulator fines Google €150 million (about ~$166 million) in antitrust, after finding that the tech giant is abusing its dominant position in the online search advertising market.
The competition authority sanctioned Google for adopting what it describes as "opaque and difficult to understand" operating rules for its ad platform, Google Ads, and for applying them in "an unfair and random manner." Or more specifically, it relates to the rules Google applies to its Ads platform which set conditions under which advertisers can broadcast ads , which was found to be confusing and inconsistently applied.
According to the regulator, Google has around 90% dominance in the online search business in France, and holds more than 80% of the online ad market linked to searches.
"One of the great principles of competition law is that with great power comes great responsibility," said Isabelle de Silva, the head of the French regulator.
The fine was finally issued after four-year long investigation after Gibmedia, a French company that runs a host of sites, ranging from weather forecasts to dictionaries. accused Google for suspending its Google ads account without notice.
Google's statement claimed that Gibmedia was running ads for websites that deceived people into paying for services on unclear billing terms.
"We do not want these kinds of ads on our systems, so we suspended Gibmedia and gave up advertising revenue to protect consumers from harm," a Google spokesperson said.
At the time, Gibmedia requested measures be taken.
Initially, the French watchdog rejected that request in a 2015 decision, but decided to continue investigating “the merits of the case.”
The French regulators, which puts a high standard to market leaders, finally sued Google after its lengthy investigation.
"Google cannot suspend the account of an advertiser on the grounds that it would offer services that it considers contrary to the interests of the consumer, while agreeing to reference and accompany on its advertising platform sites that sell similar services,” wrote the regulator.
This is the first penalty imposed by the French antitrust watchdog against Google, after the U.S. tech company clashes a number of times with the French authorities
"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 services," continued de Silva.
The watchdog noted that Google's dominance in the market required clear and define operating rules of its ad platform in an objective, transparent and non-discriminatory manner.
Since Google changed its position on the interpretation of the rules over time, Google created instability for some advertisers who were kept in a situation of legal and economic insecurity.
This is why the watchdog ordered Google to clarify how it draws up rules for the operation of Google Ads and the procedures for suspending accounts.
The tech giant should also put in place measures to prevent, detect and deal with violations of Google Ads rules. Google should also submit an annual report to the watchdog specifying the number of complaints filed against it by French internet users; the number of sites and accounts suspended; the nature of the Rules violated and the terms of the suspension.
While the watchdog doesn't say that it found evidence of Google using ambiguous and inconsistently applied ad rules in a deliberate attempt to block competitors, it asserts the behavior displays "at best negligence, at worst opportunism."
And by suing it, the regulator hopes that Google can ensure a fair access to Google Ads in the future.