EU commissioner of competition Margrethe Vestager gives a joint press conference on Antitrust: Google online search advertising at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 20 2019. Picture: AFP/JOHN THYS
EU commissioner of competition Margrethe Vestager gives a joint press conference on Antitrust: Google online search advertising at the EU headquarters in Brussels on March 20 2019. Picture: AFP/JOHN THYS

Brussels — Alphabet’s Google has been fined €1.49bn by the EU for thwarting advertising rivals, a penalty that may be EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s third and final attack on the US tech giant.

It brings the total Google has been ordered to pay to €8.2bn in EU antitrust probes that have run for nearly a decade and taken aim at the company’s popular software for Android phones and searches related to shopping.

Wednesday’s case focuses on Google’s role as an ad broker for websites, targeting exclusivity agreements for online ads with its AdSense for Search product. The service places text advertising on websites. The problematic contracts were all dropped by 2016, when the EU escalated the investigation.

Google is, by far, the biggest internet advertising broker, setting up searches on customers’ websites, Vestager said, which allows it to control how most consumers start shopping. 

“It’s an entry point,” Vestager said at a press conference. “By gaining a foothold in advertising brokering,” competitors “could grow their business and then challenge Google in general search advertising”.

The advertising revenues that fuel profits for Google and Facebook are increasingly coming under antitrust scrutiny, often prompted by complaints from media companies as advertising spend shifts to the web.

France’s competition authority has flagged the scale of Google’s ad business as a potential concern. Germany started an inquiry in February and Dutch regulators have been looking at how media companies generate ad revenue. The UK recently signaled it plans to start its own inquiry.

Google changes

Google has “already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the commission’s concerns”, the company’s senior vice-president for global affairs Kent Walker said in an e-mailed statement. “Over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe.”

The EU last July fined the company €4.3bn and demanded that it change the way it puts search and web-browser apps onto Android mobile devices. A year earlier, Google received a then-record €2.4bn penalty after regulators accused it of skewing results to thwart smaller shopping search services.

On Wednesday, however, Vestager gave the company hope it could avoid fresh fines by saying she didn’t see “a non-compliance issue” over how Google is obeying antitrust orders related to Android and shopping searches. The company is making efforts to tackle criticism linked to two older cases and is trying to stop potential new investigations into local and job search services.

“When I cite the numbers we have now and the intentions from Google in the Android decision, we don’t have a non-compliance issue as of now,” she told a press conference. Shopping search rivals are becoming more visible in Google’s results, she said, and Google’s plans to prompt users to pick alternative search and browser apps has “the potential to give users a real choice”. 

Google has been scathing about the EU probes, claiming they lack evidence. The AdSense case cites “just a few complaints to justify broad legal claims”, one of the company’s top lawyers said in a 2016 blog post.

The Danish EU commissioner has rejected claims she’s singling out US tech giants for special treatment, despite a series of high-profile decisions targeting American companies, including Apple and Amazon.

Alphabet shares rose less than 1% at 9.41am in New York.

With Stephanie Bodoni

Bloomberg