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DOJ Sues Google, Seeking to Break Up Online Ad Business

The Wall Street Journal 6 days ago Miles Kruppa, Sam Schechner, Dave Michaels
© noah berger/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Justice Department is seeking the breakup of Google’s business brokering digital advertising across much of the internet, a major expansion of the legal challenges the company faces to its business in the U.S. and abroad.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday, the Justice Department’s second against the Alphabet Inc. unit following one filed in 2020, alleges that Google abuses its role as one of the largest brokers, suppliers and online auctioneers of ads placed on websites and mobile applications. The filing promises a protracted antitrust battle with wide-ranging implications for the digital-advertising industry.

Filed in federal court in Virginia, the case alleges that Google abuses monopoly power in the ad-tech industry, hurting web publishers and advertisers that try to use competing products.

The lawsuit asks the court to unwind Google’s “anticompetitive acquisitions,” such as its 2008 purchase of ad-serving company DoubleClick, and calls for the divestiture of its ad exchange.

“Google uses its dominion over digital advertising technology to funnel more transactions to its own ad tech products where it extracts inflated fees to line its own pockets at the expense of the advertisers and publishers it purportedly serves,” the complaint read.

A Google spokesman said the lawsuit “attempts to pick winners and losers in the highly competitive advertising technology sector.”

“DOJ is doubling down on a flawed argument that would slow innovation, raise advertising fees, and make it harder for thousands of small businesses and publishers to grow,” the spokesman said.

Big tech companies such as Google are under a barrage from lawmakers and regulators across multiple continents who have targeted the companies’ dominance in online markets. Justice Department officials also are investigating Apple Inc. The Federal Trade Commission has sued Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook unit over antitrust allegations and Microsoft Corp. to block its planned $75 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard Inc. President Biden recently urged lawmakers from both parties to unite behind legislation seeking to rein in tech giants. The European Union also has opened cases looking at alleged anticompetitive conduct by Google, Meta and other companies.

The Justice Department’s 2020 lawsuit against Google targeted its position in online search markets, including an agreement to make Google search the default in Apple’s Safari web browser. Google is fighting the case, which is expected to go to trial this year.

Alphabet gets about 80% of its business from advertising. The Justice Department’s new suit targets the subset of that ad business that brokers the buying and selling of ads on other websites and apps. Google reported $31.7 billion in revenue in 2021 from that ad-brokering activity, or about 12% of Alphabet’s total revenue. Google distributes about 70% of that revenue to web publishers and developers.

Last year, Google offered to split off parts of its ad-tech business into a separate company under the Alphabet umbrella to fend off the most recent Justice Department investigation. Justice Department officials rejected the offer and decided to pursue the lawsuit instead.

For years, Google has faced allegations from advertising- and media-industry executives, lawmakers and regulators that its presence at multiple points of the online ad-buying process harms publishers and gives it an unfair advantage over rivals. Google also operates the most popular search engine and the largest online video-streaming site, YouTube, giving rise to allegations it has tilted the market in its own favor.

Rivals say that Google’s power in digital advertising stems from a series of acquisitions Google used to build its ad-tech business, beginning with the company’s $3.1 billion purchase of DoubleClick. The FTC approved the merger in a controversial decision. Google went on to purchase a host of other startups including the mobile-advertising company AdMob.

“Having inserted itself into all aspects of the digital advertising marketplace, Google has used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies,” the complaint read.

Google has said it has no plans to sell or exit the ad-tech business. It has also strongly contested claims in a lawsuit filed by state attorneys general containing allegations similar to the Justice Department complaint. A federal judge denied the bulk of Google’s motion to dismiss the case last year, allowing it to proceed to the discovery stage and ultimately toward trial.

Any judgment against Google in the Justice Department’s new lawsuit likely would cause big ripple effects across the online advertising industry, which has recently shown signs of weakness as consumers dial back purchases in response to worsening economic conditions.

Breaking off some or all of Google’s ad-tech business from the rest of the company could take years of litigation to resolve. Depending on the outcome of the case, ad-tech executives have said the results could range from a higher share of ad dollars flowing to publishers to lower overall spending because digital ads would be less efficient without Google brokering them.

The Justice Department case overlaps in some ways with an investigation that the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, the European Commission, opened in 2021, as well as one by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority. Those probes are exploring allegations that Google favors its own ad-buying tools in the advertising auctions it runs, but also look at other elements of Google’s ad-tech business. The EU, for instance, is also looking at Google’s alleged exclusion of competitors from brokering ad-buys on its video site YouTube.

Google has attempted to settle many of these claims. In addition to offering to split off parts of its ad-tech business to avoid the Justice Department suit, the company last year discussed with the EU an offer to allow competitors to broker the sale of ads directly on the video service.

In 2021, the company agreed to give U.K. antitrust regulators effective veto power over elements of its plans to remove a technology called third-party cookies from its Chrome browser to settle an investigation there into the plan.

In France, Google agreed to pay a fine of 220 million euros, equivalent to about $239 million, and to improve data access to competing ad-tech companies, to not use its data in ways rivals couldn’t reproduce to settle a similar antitrust investigation in the country.

Write to Miles Kruppa at miles.kruppa@wsj.com and Sam Schechner at Sam.Schechner@wsj.com

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