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What To Do About Google’s Dominance of Online Advertising

As the DOJ’s antitrust case against Google begins, all eyes are focused on whether Google violated antitrust law by, among other things, entering into exclusionary agreements with equipment makers like Apple and Samsung or web browsers like Mozilla. Per the District Court’s Memorandum Opinion, released August 4, “These agreements make Google the default search engine on a range of products in exchange for a share of the advertising revenue generated by searches run on Google.” The DOJ alleges that Google unlawfully monopolizes the search advertising market.

Aside from matters relating to antitrust liability, an equally important question is what remedy, if any, would work to restore competition in search advertising in particular and online advertising generally?

Developments in the UK might shed some light. The UK Treasury commissioned a report to make recommendations on changes to competition law and policy, which aimed to “help unlock the opportunities of the digital economy.” The report found that Big Tech’s monopolizing of data and control over open web interoperability could undermine innovation and economic growth. Big Tech platforms now have all the data in their hands, block interoperability with other sources, and will capture more of it, through their huge customer-facing machines, and so can be expected to dominate the data needed for the AI Period, enabling them to hold back competition and economic growth.

The dominant digital platforms currently provide services to billions of end users. Each of us has either an Apple or Android device in our pocket. These devices operate as part of integrated distribution platforms: anything anyone wants to obtain from the web goes through the device, its browser (often Google’s search engine), and the platform before accessing the Open Web, if not staying on an app on an apps store within the walls of the garden.

Every interaction with every platform product generates data, refreshed billions of times a day from multiple touch points providing insight into buying intent and able to predict people’s behavior and trends.

All this data is used to generate alphanumeric codes that match data contained in databases (aka “Match Keys”), which are used to help computers interoperate and serve relevant ads to match users’ interests. These were for many years used by all from the widely distributed Double Click ID. They were shared across the web and were used as the main source of data by competing publishers and advertisers. After Google bought Double Click and grew big enough to “tip” the market, however, Google withdrew access to its Match Keys for its own benefit.

The interoperability that is a feature of the underlying internet architecture has gradually been eroded. Facebook collected its own data from user’s “Likes” and community groups and also withdrew access for independent publishers to its Match Key data, and recently Apple has restricted access to Match Key data that is useful for ads for all publishers, except Google has a special deal on search and search data. As revealed in U.S. vs Google, Apple is paid over $10 billion a year by Google so that Google can provide its search product to Apple users and gather all their search history data that it can then use for advertising. The data generated by end user interactions with websites is now captured and kept within each Big Tech walled garden.

If the Match Keys were shared with rival publishers for use in their independent supply channel and used by them for their own ad-funded businesses, interoperability would be improved and effective competition could be generated with the tech platforms. Competition probably won’t exist otherwise.  

Both Google and Apple currently impose restrictions on access to data and interoperability. Cookie files also contain Match Keys that help maintain computer sessions and “state” so that different computers can talk to each other and help remember previous visits to websites and enable e-commerce. Cookies do not themselves contain personal data and are much less valuable than the Match Keys that were developed by Double Click or ID for advertisers, but they do provide something of a substitute source of data about users’ intent to purchase for independent publishers.

Google and Apple are in the process of blocking access to Match Keys in all forms to prevent competitors from obtaining relevant data about users needs and wants. They also prevent the use of the Open Web and limit the inter-operation of their apps stores with Open Web products, such as progressive web apps.

The UK’s Treasury Report refers to interoperability 8 times and the need for open standards as a remedy 43 times; the Bill refers to interoperability and we are expecting further debate about the issue as the Bill passes through Parliament.

A Brief History of Computing and Communications

The solution to monopolization, or lack of competition, is the generation of competition and more open markets. For that to happen in digital worlds, access to data and interoperability is needed. Each previous period of monopolization involved intervention to open-up computer and communications interfaces via antitrust cases and policy that opened market and liberalized trade. We have learned that the authorities need to police standards for interoperability and open interfaces to ensure the playing field is level and innovation can take place unimpeded. 

IBM’s activity involved bundling computers and peripherals and the case was eventually solved by unbundling and unblocking interfaces needed by competitors to interoperate with other systems. Microsoft did the same, blocking third parties from interoperating via blocking access to interfaces with its operating system. Again, it was resolved by opening-up interfaces to promote interoperability and competition between products that could then be available over platforms.

When Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, it took place nearly ten years after the U.S. courts imposed a break-up of AT&T and after the liberalization of telecommunications data transmission markets in the United States and the European Union. That liberalization was enabled by open interfaces and published standards. To ensure that new entrants could provide services to business customers, a type of data portability was mandated, enabling numbers held in incumbent telecoms’ databases to be transferred for use by new telecoms suppliers. The combination of interconnection and data portability neutralized the barrier to entry created by the network effect arising from the monopoly control over number data.

The opening of telecoms and data markets in the early 1990s ushered in an explosion of innovation. To this day, if computers operate to the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol then they can talk to other computers. In the early 1990s, a level playing field was created for decentralized competition among millions of businesses.

These major waves of digital innovation perhaps all have a common cause. Because computing and communications both have high fixed costs and low variable or incremental costs, and messaging and other systems benefit from network effects, markets may “tip” to a single provider. Competition in computing and communications then depends on interoperability remedies. Open, publicly available interfaces in published standards allow computers and communications systems to interoperate; and open decentralized market structures mean that data can’t easily be monopolized. 

It’s All About the Match Keys

The dominant digital platforms currently capture data and prevent interoperability for commercial gain. The market is concentrated with each platform building their own walled gardens and restricting data sharing and communication across. Try cross-posting among different platforms as an example of a current interoperability restriction. Think about why messaging is restricted within each messaging app, rather than being possible across different systems as happens with email. Each platform restricts interoperability preventing third-party businesses from offering their products to users captured in their walled gardens.

For competition to operate in online advertising markets, a similar remedy to data portability in the telecom space is needed. Only, with respect to advertising, the data that needs to be accessed is Match Key data, not telephone numbers.    

The history of anticompetitive abuse and remedies is a checkered one. Microsoft was prohibited from discriminating against rivals and had to put up a choice screen in the EU Microsoft case. It didn’t work out well. Google was similarly prohibited by the EU in Google search (Shopping) from (1) discriminating against rivals in its search engine results pages, (2) entering exclusive agreements with handset suppliers that discriminated against rivals, and (3) showing only Google products straight out of the box in the EU Android case. The remedies did not look at the monopolization of data and its use in advertising. Little has changed and competitors claim that the remedies are ineffective.

Many in the advertising publishing and ad tech markets recall that the market worked pretty well before Google acquired Double Click. Google uses multiple data sources as the basis for its Match Keys and an access and interoperability remedy might be more effective, proportionate and less disruptive.     

Perhaps if the DOJ’s case examines why Google collects search data from its search engine, its use of search histories, browser histories and data from all interactions with all products for its Match Key for advertising, the court will better appreciate the importance of data for competitors and how to remedy that position for advertising-funded online publishing. 

Following Europe’s Lead

The EU position is developing. Under the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), which now supplements EU antitrust law as applied in the Google Search and Android Decisions, it is recognized that people want to be able to provide products and services across different platforms or cross-post or communicate with people connected to each social network or messaging app. In response, the EU has imposed obligations on Big Tech platforms in Articles 5(4) and 6(7) that provide for interoperability and require gatekeepers to allow open access to the web.

Similarly, Section 20.3 (e) of the UK’s Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (DMCC) refers to interoperability and may be the subject of forthcoming debate as the bill passes further through Parliament. Unlike U.S. jurisprudence with its recent fixation on consumer welfare, the objective of the Competition and Markets Authority is imposed by the law. The obligation to “promote competition for the benefit of consumers” is contained in EA 2013 s 25(3). This can be expressly related to intervention opening up access to the source of the current data monopolies: the Match Keys could be shared, meaning all publishers could get access to IDs for advertising (i.e., operating systems generated IDs such as Apple’s IDFA or Google’s Google ID or MAID).

In all jurisdictions it will be important for remedies to stimulate innovation, and to ensure that competition is promoted between all products that can be sold online, rather than between integrated distribution systems. Moreover, data portability needs to apply with reference to use of open and interoperable Match Keys that can be used for advertising, and that way address the data monopolization risk. As with the DMA, the DMCC should contain an obligation for gatekeepers to ensure fair reasonable and nondiscriminatory access, and treat advertisers in a similar way to that through which interoperability and data potability addressed monopoly benefits in previous computer, telecoms, and messaging cases.        

Tim Cowen is the Chair of the Antitrust Practice at the London-based law firm of Preiskel & Co LLP.

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