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EU, UK open antitrust probes into Google, Meta ad-services agreement

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EU and U.K. antitrust authorities launched parallel probes into an agreement between Google and Facebook owner Meta for online display advertising services.

The European Commission and the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority are concerned that the companies hindered competition in the markets for online display advertising services and pledged to cooperate “closely” as they carry out their investigations.

The watchdogs are looking into a 2018 deal, under which the companies agreed that Meta’s Audience Network would participate in Google’s Open Bidding program.

“Via the so-called ‘Jedi Blue’ agreement between Google and Meta, a competing technology to Google’s Open Bidding may have been targeted with the aim to weaken it and exclude it from the market for displaying ads on publisher websites and apps,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

“If confirmed by our investigation, this would restrict and distort competition in the already concentrated ad tech market, to the detriment of rival ad serving technologies, publishers and ultimately consumers,” she said.

Brussels fears that the agreement could harm publishers and consumers, as it could be part of efforts to exclude ad tech services competing with Google’s Open Bidding program. This would affect competition in the market of online display advertising.

The British regulator said the probe is part of a wider investigation into Google’s practices in online advertising auctions.

The CMA is looking into Google’s conduct when it comes to header bidding services, which allow news publishers and other sellers to offer their online advertising space to multiple buyers at the same time. This makes auctions more competitive, as buyers compete with each other.

“We will not shy away from scrutinizing the behavior of big tech firms while we await powers for the Digital Markets Unit,” CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said. “If one company has a stranglehold over a certain area, it can make it hard for start-ups and smaller businesses to break into the market — and may ultimately reduce customer choice.”

The companies said the agreement is actually pro-competitive and pledged to cooperate with the investigations.

“The allegations made about this agreement are false,” a Google spokesperson said, adding that dozens of companies participate in the Open Bidding program and that Meta doesn’t get any advantages that help them win auctions.

This article has been updated.

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