Google fined $226m in France amid online ad crackdown

PARIS • Google has been fined US$167 million (S$226 million) in a French antitrust case involving online advertising as regulators throughout Europe criticise the tech giant's business practices.

The French authority found Google to have abused its dominant position in search when it set "opaque and difficult to understand operating rules" for its Google Ads advertising platform, which it also applied unfairly and randomly.

It is the first time France's Autorite de la concurrence has fined Google, its president Isabelle de Silva told reporters at a Paris press conference on Friday.

While the fine is a fraction of Google's revenue, the company has had several run-ins with antitrust watchdogs in Europe.

Earlier last week, British officials said splitting Google's ad server operations from the rest of its business could be an option to counter its dominance.

European Union antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager has fined the US technology giant €8.2 billion (S$12.3 billion) in three probes over the last two years.

"Google has to do more and better than just any company," Ms de Silva said.

"The rules were not only very difficult to understand" but they also "changed all the time, from one month to the other" without clear communication from Google, making it very difficult for advertisers to understand what they could and could not do.

Ms de Silva said the French case was prompted by Gibmedia, which operated weather information and reverse directory websites. It complained after its online ad account was suspended in 2015.

Officials have been scrutinising the way US technology firms collect and exploit data to compete in the online advertising sector.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, said it will appeal, arguing that its advertising policies were designed to protect people from "exploitative and abusive ads".

"Gibmedia was running ads for websites that deceived people into paying for services on unclear billing terms," the California-based company said in a statement. "We do not want these kinds of ads on our systems, so we suspended Gibmedia and gave up advertising revenue to protect consumers from harm."

Google has also been ordered to clarify the rules for Google Ads and its procedure for suspending accounts. It will have to put in place measures to prevent, detect and deal with violations of Google Ads rules. The French authority's decision must be displayed on the google.com and google.fr home pages for a week.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 22, 2019, with the headline 'Google fined $226m in France amid online ad crackdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe