ACCC: Current powers no match for Google

New laws and powers are needed to address Google's dominance in adtech sector, finds inquiry into digital advertising services

ACCC chairman, Rod Sims
ACCC chairman, Rod Sims

The ACCC’s just-released report on its inquiry into digital advertising services concludes that existing competition laws do not enable the ACCC to adequately address the sector’s competition issues and Google's dominant position in the adtech ecosystem.

In its report today, the regulatory watchdog recommended it should be given powers to develop industry-specific rules, as has been done for telecommunications sector, to enable the Commission to restore competition to the adtech sector for the benefit of businesses and consumers. The Commission is also considering allegations against Google under existing competition laws. 

“Regulatory solutions are needed to address Google’s dominance and restore competition to the ad tech sector,” said ACCC chairman, Rod Sims. “We recommend [new] rules be considered to manage conflicts of interest, prevent anti-competitive self-preferencing and ensure rival ad tech providers can compete on merit.” 

The report found that, in 2020, Google's dominance in key parts of the adtech supply chain is such that more than 90 per cent of ad impressions traded through the adtech supply chain went via at least one Google service. The ACCC based Google’s dominance in the supply chain on factors including its ownership of DoubleClick, YouTube and AdMob.

The ACCC noted Google prevents rival adtech services from accessing ads on its platforms such as YouTube and that its refusal to take part in publisher-led header bidding, which aims to increase competition for publishers’ inventory, also gives its services an advantage. 

“Google’s activities across the supply chain mean that, in a single transaction, Google can act on behalf of both advertiser [buyer] and the publisher [seller],” said Sims “[This]… creates conflicts of interest for Google which can harm both advertisers and publishers.” 

Sims expressed concern that lack of competition is likely to have led to higher adtech fees for both publishers and advertisers. This, in turn, is likely to reduce the quality or quantity of online content and increase prices for advertised goods. 

Read more: ACCC on ad tech supply chain

One ACCC recommendation is Google clarify how it uses its first-party data through search, maps and YouTube in clear public statements in its terms as well as other material used to sell its services. Another is that, in the proposed sector-specific rules, the ACCC be given power to develop and use measures to address competition issues caused by a provider’s data advantage from first-party data. 

Transparency is another issue, especially with Google’s publisher services, the ACCC report found. The Commission advises Google should be made to provide publishers with information about the way its publisher ad server actions work and their results. To create transparency generally, the report recommends standards requiring adtech providers to publish average fees and take rates so customers can easily compare fees and rates across different providers and services. It's also called for an industry standard for full, independent verification of services in the supply chain used by advertisers. 

 IAB Australia CEO, Gai Le Roy, said the ACCC’s detailed Digital Advertising Services Inquiry Report has implications for many aspects of the adtech sector.

“The digital advertising industry is focused on ensuring advertising technologies prioritise consumer privacy and accountability in the development of targeting, measurement, and attribution solutions. We recognise the critical importance of transparency across the Australian adtech supply chain and are actively working to develop measures that work for advertisers and publishers as well as consumers,” she stated.

The way the ACCC’s report recommendations should be adopted, including the legal framework for its proposed rules and powers, will be considered in a broader ACCC report due in a year. That report will look at the need for proposed rules for adtech to be part of a wider regulatory scheme to respond to common competition and cons digital platform services markets, which reports to the Treasurer twice a year.

Meanwhile, Google released research from PwC Australia which promotes adtech services’ contribution to the economy, in job creation and enabling small businesses to reach a global audience and grow as a result. PwC estimates Google’s advertising technology directly supports more than 15,000 full-time equivalent jobs and contributes $2.45 billion in gross value add to the Australian economy each year. 

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