Google-Facebook ad deal under investigation by EU and UK

The European Union and the United Kingdom are stepping up their parallel crackdowns on big tech companies, opening formal antitrust investigations into whether Alphabet Inc.

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owner Meta Platforms Inc. sought to illegally fix digital advertising prices.

The European Commission, the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, and Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority said on Friday they were each investigating a once-secret 2018 deal, known as the of Jedi Blue, which emerged in a lawsuit filed a year and a half ago by a group of US states led by Texas.

The Texas lawsuit argues that Google gave Meta special terms and access to its ad server, a ubiquitous tool for allocating advertising space on the web, in exchange for its abandonment of a competing advertising technology that would have may have undermined Google’s control over online advertisements.

Google and Meta both challenged the characterization of their agreement as potentially anti-competitive. They both said it wasn’t an exclusive deal, and Google said Meta didn’t receive special treatment over other partners.

The opening of a file is a key procedural step in European competition investigations. If the UK’s commission or CMA finds evidence of wrongdoing, they can file formal charges; otherwise, they say they might give up their business. Both authorities said they planned to cooperate in their investigations.

The two new cases are part of a large wave of antitrust enforcement in Europe. In recent years, the commission has filed formal charges against Apple Inc.

for allegedly abusing its control over the distribution of music streaming apps, including Spotify, and against Amazon.com Inc.

for allegedly using non-public data it collects from third-party vendors to unfairly compete with them. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing.

Google and Meta have been major targets. The EU opened an investigation last year into whether Google is abusing its leadership role in the ad tech industry, while the UK agreed to a settlement with Google over its plan to stop supporting a advertising technology called third-party cookies from its Chrome. Navigator.

Enforcement of existing laws also comes as big tech companies brace for the broadest expansion of tech regulation in a generation.

The EU is finalizing the texts of two new technology laws, one that aims to limit possible abuses of dominance and the other that aims to force them to do more monitoring of online content, both carry significant fines.

Friday’s cases will examine the 2018 contract between the two companies, in which Meta agreed to its so-called Audience Network, which displays advertisements on third-party websites, to participate in a Google advertising program called Open Bidding, authorities said. This Google program is an alternative to competing technology that allows websites to bypass Google’s powerful ad exchange when selling ads.

“We are concerned that Google has partnered with Meta to put obstacles in the way of competitors who provide important online display advertising services to publishers,” said Andrea Coscelli, head of UK CMA.

Google said Friday its Open Bidding program has more than 25 partners, and a spokesperson for Meta said its deal with Google is similar to those it has with other auction platforms.

Write to Sam Schechner at [email protected]

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