On Dec. 23, Sterling International Consulting Group, a “Publisher” which sells space to display ads to advertisers through a website, filed a class-action complaint in the Northern District of California against Google for its purported antitrust violations in the Publisher Ad Server Market. Google reportedly violated the Sherman Act and caused harm to the plaintiff by hindering competition and charging supracompetitive prices.
According to the complaint, Google engaged in an “overarching anticompetitive scheme to capture a dominant share of the revenues associated with services required to place open-web display ads.” In particular, the plaintiff alleged that Google obtained and maintained a monopoly in the Publisher Ad Server Market and has “used that power to artificially inflate its prices charged to ‘Publishers.’”
In order to sell ad space, Sterling International “directly purchases publisher ad service services from Google.” These ad servers “identify ad space that gets created when users load Publishers’ webpages, and then solicit and organize bids from various sources of advertiser demand to fill the space.” Providers, like Google, receive a portion of the payment advertisers make for their ads to appear on the publishers’ webpages as compensation. The plaintiff added that it relies on Google “to solicit and organize bids from advertisers for its website’s ad inventory.”
In particular, Google allegedly controls the Ad Tech Stack, which is a series of processes which happen in less than a second when a page is loaded, the publisher ad server notifies demand sources like ad exchanges or ad networks that ad space exists. These demand sources then provide bids from advertisers to the publisher ad server, which then identifies a winning bid; after which, it obtains the advertisement from the winning bidder and places the ad on the publisher’s website. According to the plaintiff, Google controls this process because it “controls the dominant services at each level of the Ad Tech Stack.”
The plaintiff proffered that since at least 2007, Google “illegally acquired, enhanced, and maintained dominant positions in the Publisher Ad Server Market.” For example, the plaintiff claimed that Google engaged in acquisitions, such as its acquisition of DoubleClick in 2007, that were “designed to give it a significant presence at each level of the Ad Tech Stack.” Google purportedly engaged in “exclusionary conduct” by tying its “ad targeting and attribution data services to its advertising-facing ad tech services.”
The plaintiff contended that as more publishers used Google’s publisher ad server services, Google fortified its control of advertisers through similar conduct; specifically, Google favored its own demand sources when providing access to its Publisher-clients’ ad spaces. Thus, advertisers were purportedly encouraged to use Google products and services. Additionally, Sterling International claimed that Google took steps to “impair potential rivals’ ability to collect user data and use such data to target advertisements” such as “by suppressing non-AMP content in Google Search results,” while redirecting users to access content from Google’s servers, not the publishers’ servers. Lastly, as noted in the suit led by the Texas Attorney General, Google entered into an agreement with Facebook whereby the tech giants agreed to cooperate and not compete with each other, thus reducing Google’s competition. This lack of competition has allowed Google to charge publishers supracompetitive prices for its services, according to the plaintiff.
This suit against Google is one of many against Google for antitrust violations, in addition to the aforementioned suit led by Texas, the DOJ and a coalition of states filed a suit against Google. Additionally, consumers filed two antitrust suits against Google in October.