Competition Bureau in midst of new probe of Google over advertising dominance in Canada

OCT 17, 2021

Google sells online advertising space to advertisers in Canada, and elsewhere, through a handful of owned and operated properties including YouTube. PHOTO BY PARESH DAVE/REUTERS/FILE

The probe, in part, is looking at the 'circumstances and motivations for Google’s decision to withhold YouTube video ad inventory' from certain third parties beginning in 2016

The Competition Bureau has initiated a new probe into whether Google is engaged in anti-competitive behaviour in Canada, this time focusing on the way ads are sold on its YouTube platform and how the tech giant’s dominance might reduce competition elsewhere in the “ecosystem” of online advertising.

“Specifically, the Commissioner is investigating whether Google is leveraging its market power in the supply of in-stream video advertising space into adjacent advertising technology markets,” Stéphanie Guitard, a senior competition law officer at the bureau, said in affidavit filed in Federal Court this week.

An earlier probe into Google’s online search and search advertising was shelved by the Canadian competition watchdog in 2016 with no action taken, but the tech giant has faced increasing scrutiny around the world since then, particularly in the United States.

The latest inquiry by the Canadian competition watchdog, first reported by Blacklock’s Reporter, an online Ottawa news outlet, was launched in December. According to documents filed in court as part of a process to gather information on the matter from Google, it is focusing on different conduct and more recent developments. These include the “circumstances and motivations for Google’s decision to withhold YouTube video ad inventory” from certain third parties beginning in 2016, according to the documents.

The probe is also examining the tech giant’s decision to implement “restrictions on the use of certain tools used by advertisers to verify and measure their ad campaigns … (beginning) as early as 2017.”

Google sells online advertising space to advertisers in Canada, and elsewhere, through a handful of owned and operated properties including YouTube. It also provides online advertising technology services to both advertisers and publishers who buy and sell online advertising space.

In her affidavit, Guitard, the bureau’s senior law officer, described the online advertising technology supply chain as “a complex ecosystem” of products that facilitate the automated purchases and sales of online advertising inventory by advertisers and publishers.

“No single ad tech product works independently and Google is present across most, if not all, levels of the supply chain,” she said.

In addition to the information the Competition Bureau is seeking from Google, it has “gathered and assessed records and information from a variety of sources” including market participants and foreign competition law enforcement agencies, according to the court filings.

Lawyers for Google indicated in the documents that the company is cooperating with the Competition Bureau. However, the tech firm is also seeking to have confidential or commercially sensitive information sealed or removed from the court record.

A spokesperson said Friday that Google will “continue to engage constructively with the Canadian Competition Bureau to answer their questions and demonstrate the benefits of our products to Canadian businesses and consumers.”

Guitard, in her affidavit, added that the market watchdog is “actively investigating” information related to Google’s market power across the supply chain as well as the effects of the policy changes and limits on measurement since 2016.

While no conclusions have been drawn, the inquiry is seeking to understand the “potential or actual effects of Google’s conduct on competition and the markets where potential or actual effects occur.”

Jean-Philippe Lepage, a spokesperson for the Competition Bureau, said Friday afternoon that the competition watchdog had “committed to closely follow developments with respect to Google’s conduct” when it closed its earlier investigation, which was based on “different conduct and allegations.”

He confirmed the bureau is now “investigating whether Google has engaged in certain practices that harm competition in the online display advertising market in Canada — including, but not limited to the market for Demand Side Platform services.”

Lepage said more information is required “to examine these practices and to determine whether they are impeding the success of competitors, and resulting in higher prices, reducing choice and hindering innovation … to the detriment of advertisers, publishers and consumers.”

If the bureau finds conduct that is believed to contravene provisions laid out in the Competition Act, it can seek a negotiated settlement or consent agreement, or take the matter to the Competition Tribunal to be litigated and seek remedies there.

“Remedies under these provisions are primarily behavioural, including ordering an action to be taken or prohibiting an action from being taken, but can also include administrative monetary penalties under certain provisions,” he said.

“However, as the Bureau’s investigation is ongoing and there is no conclusion of wrongdoing at this time, it would be inappropriate to speculate as to potential outcomes or appropriate next steps.”

He said he was unable to speculate on when the watchdog will reach a conclusion on the latest Google inquiry, and could not comment further about the investigation because “the Bureau is required by law to conduct its work confidentially.”