Bipartisan act could (eventually) lead to the end of Google as we know it

The news: If enacted, a bipartisan bill targeting Google would compel the company to divide up its digital advertising business.

  • The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act was introduced last Thursday—something we had reported on earlier this month—by a bipartisan group of US senators.
  • Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn), ranking member and chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, introduced the bill with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).

More on this: The measure would prohibit corporations that handle more than $20 billion in digital ad transactions yearly from engaging in more than one aspect of the digital advertising process.

  • Google is involved in several stages of the digital ad ecosystem: It hosts an auction (exchange) where ads are purchased and offers tools to assist brands and agencies in selling and buying advertising.
  • If the proposed legislation passes, the company will have to decide which portion of the business to stay in.
  • Critics for years have said that Google has an unfair advantage in both running an exchange as well as serving as both a buyer and seller of advertising. The company has been accused of using its power to manipulate the ad market to its advantage, which Google denies but faces difficulty proving.

Trouble in Europe: The new US proposal is not the only antitrust action Google has contended with recently.

  • Antitrust regulators in the European Union and UK are investigating Google and Meta’s 2018 “Jedi Blue” deal, which allegedly gave Meta preferential access to Google’s ad bidding system and was used to block ad tech rivals.
  • The company recently lost an appeal pushing back against a €150 million ($177 million) fine from a French antitrust authority alleging the search leader treated advertisers on its platform unfairly.
  • Repeated infractions against the EU’s new Digital Markets Act could, in theory, cost Google as much as $51 billion.

How consumers feel: Many consumers are cynical about Big Tech.

  • Gallup asked US adults their views of Big Tech in August 2019 and February 2021. The groups that held a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of Big Tech shrank in 2021 vs. 2019, while those with “very negative” views spiked to 22% vs. just 10% in 2019.
  • More than half of consumers strongly or somewhat support Big Tech being broken up, per Vox/Data for Progress data from early last year.

Will it happen? The bill's coalition demonstrates that support for antitrust reform to rein in tech dominance extends across ideological lines. That doesn’t mean the measure is a shoo-in to get enacted.

  • That said, there are signs that Google’s growth strategy has to constantly factor in assuaging antitrust concerns. Late last year, Google announced it would be moving to a first-price auction model for some AdSense categories, after facing criticism that its second-price auctions gave it an unfair advantage over other exchanges.
  • Google is also piloting a program for alternative payment methods that would allow some apps to bypass its existing payment systems, undercutting its own ability to maximize commissions on such sales.

The big takeaway: While this act may not become law, it could be one more thing that leads to eventual regulation. There may not be anything Google can do to stop anti-monopolistic regulation from becoming reality; it may just be a matter of when.

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