Google Fined $1.7 Billion for Violating EU Antitrust Laws

Google AdSense rules blocked out competitors, regulators found

EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager levied the fines against Google. Getty Images

The European Commission’s top competition regulators this morning fined Google nearly $1.7 billion, saying that Google abused its position in the market when third-party websites used its AdSense for Search product.

The fine, equaling 1.49 billion euros, is only the latest that European regulators have brought against the tech giant over antitrust violations. The search giant has already faced $7.7 billion, or 6.76 billion euros, in fines related to antitrust violations. Last year, regulators levied a record $5.1 billion fine on Google for its Android operating system, on which regulators said Google favored its own products like search maps. In 2017, regulators brought down a $2.7 billion fine after finding that Google favored its own shopping platform in search results. In 2018, Google generated nearly $20 billion in revenues from advertising programs on Google properties, which includes AdSense.

The fine also lands as lawmakers and regulators in the U.S., who have largely allowed Silicon Valley to operate without much oversight, are considering their own antitrust actions against tech giants like Google.

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said Google’s AdSense for Search, a product that allows third-party websites to provide search results and display advertisements related to search terms, was blocking out competitors by favoring its own advertisements.

“This is illegal under EU antitrust rules,” Vestager, who has brought the other fines against Google, said in a statement. “The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate—and consumers the benefits of competition.”

Publishers large and small use Google’s AdSense to monetize portions of their sites. In a years-long investigation, regulators determined that publishers using Google AdSense were for years prohibited from placing advertisements from other search advertising companies like Microsoft and Yahoo in their search results. Google made changes to those policies in 2009, regulators said, but the company then required publishers using AdSense to save “premium placement” in search result ad space for Google’s ads.

Under AdSense contracts, Google also required publishers to get written approval if they made changes to how advertisements from rival advertising companies showed up in those search results, which regulators said could allow Google to make rival advertisements less attractive and therefore less effective.

Google has already made changes to its AdSense product after regulators began looking into AdSense action in 2016, and Google svp and general counsel Kent Walker said in a statement that Google would make further updates to AdSense to comply with the ruling.

“We’ve always agreed that healthy, thriving markets are in everyone’s interest,” Walker said. “We’ve already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the Commission’s concerns. Over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe.”

The fine had been expected since at least January, and it’s likely not the last of Google’s legal challenges. Regulators are also examining how Google handles local search results from its competitors, on which rivals like Yelp have long cried foul. The company, too, could still face civil fines related to its AdSense product.

American regulators seem to be ramping up their ability to handle antitrust concerns in the technology sector, which has ballooned amid little regulatory oversight. In late February, the Federal Trade Commission created a task force aimed at examining competition in technology markets and reviewing prospective and completed mergers in the sector.

Meanwhile, the call among some legislators to investigate big tech companies like Google has grown louder. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate for president, has called for big tech to be broken up and advocated for Google’s ad exchange to be spun off from the rest of the company. On Tuesday, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat who heads the House Antitrust Subcommittee, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on the FTC to investigate the social media giant Facebook for violating U.S. antitrust laws.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.