Insight Google's use of accelerated mobile web pages attracts state antitrust scrutiny

26 September 2019 00:00

Google’s controversial project to host and accelerate the delivery of mobile web pages has emerged as a centerpiece of a multistate group’s probe into whether the Internet giant violated state or federal antitrust laws by moving to dominate the online advertising ecosystem.

The probe by the attorneys general is the first to look into the Accelerated Mobile Pages project, or AMP, as an antitrust enforcement issue despite years of complaints from news organizations, software developers and others. Google introduced AMP four years ago to syndicate online content for rapid display on mobile devices.

As part of a 48-state effort to probe Google’s advertising business, the Texas attorney general Sept. 9 served Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, with a 129-question civil investigative demand. The CID, obtained by MLex through a public records request, focuses on multiple elements of the digital ads business that reaped the lion's share of Google's $136.8 billion* in revenue in 2018.

The attorneys general ask for planning documents and other strategic analyses for Google's purchases of DoubleClick, AdMeld, AdMob and Invite Media, companies that control the connection between ad publishers and the consumers most likely to be interested in a particular ad.

However, they reserve the largest number of questions — 30 in all — for the AMP project. AMP accelerates load times on smartphones and other mobile devices by hosting content on Google’s servers rather than on the servers of a news organization or other websites.

The CID questions focus on whether websites are compelled to participate in AMP to get a better ranking in Google search results, and the competitive advantage Google may gain through AMP in a host of different ways, such as possessing better advertising analytics than competitors like comScore and Adobe Analytics.

Google has one month to respond to the CID, with its answers due to no later than Oct. 9. The CID also includes questions about Google’s data-collection practices through its Chrome browser and YouTube platform.

The states also ask Google about a 2016 change to its privacy policy where the company combined previously separate web browsing histories collected by DoubleClick with what it knew about consumers from their use of other Google services, such as Gmail and Maps.

A Google spokesman declined to comment today on the CID, instead pointing to a September blogpost by Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president for global affairs.

Accelerated Mobile Pages

Touted by Google since 2015 as an open-source method for delivering web content to mobile devices instantaneously and attractively, publishers and developers were quick to pan AMP as a backdoor attempt by the search giant to grab control over online content.

The Texas CID requires Google to produce a large volume of information on AMP, ranging from who is in charge of the project within the company, to how Google might use AMP to gain an advantage in gathering behavioral data about consumers to target ads to their interests and preferences. The attorneys general also want to know whether a website’s decision to not participate in AMP might lower its ranking in Google search results.

“State Your reasons or motivations for Your participation in the AMP Project,” they ask.

News publishers in particular object to AMP, saying that unless they implement the Google-led technology, they’ll be excluded from the carousel of featured articles the search giant puts smack dab in the middle of mobile search result pages. They also object to how Google hosts AMP pages on its own servers, keeping users tethered to the company’s orbit.

Developers also have bad things to say, taking aim at Google's contention that AMP is an open source project.

“Publishers should not be compelled by Google’s search dominance to put their content under a Google umbrella,” an international group of about 700 developers said in a 2018 open letter about AMP. “The Web is not Google, and should not be just Google.”

The attorneys general follow that line of criticism, asking Google to clarify its “control or influence” over AMP, whether other companies that wanted to participate were rebuffed by Google, and the amount of Google resources that have gone into the project.

Regulatory scrutiny

The Texas CID to Alphabet was issued under the authority of the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act of 1983, and other state laws. The Texas attorney general’s office previously led an antitrust probe of Google’s search business between 2010 and 2014, and the detail in the 129-question CID reveals that the states already have a rich volume of information about how Google’s complicated advertising business works.

The attorneys general break ground by placing AMP in an antitrust context, but they’re not the first set of government officials to look into it.

In its final June report on digital platforms, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found that the AMP format “impedes the ability of media businesses to monetise content as effectively as on their own websites. It also creates difficulties with attribution, branding and the sharing of data”.

The European Publishers Council*, whose members include Thompson Reuters, Axel Springer and News Corp., raised concerns about AMP during the court of the ACCC’s review.

In its defense, Google has said there are no restrictions in AMP that would require publishers to have fewer ads. The company has also said AMP’s improved page-load times lead to increased site traffic and “typically increases advertising revenue overall.”

The ACCC recommended creating a code of conduct to help govern the relationship between publishers and digital platforms, including the use of AMP, but didn’t suggest further antitrust scrutiny.

One change developers have called on Google to make is instead of favoring AMP participants in search results, any content that accelerates page loading under an “objective, neutral performance criterion” should be equally favored in Google’s search results.

— With reporting by Joshua Sisco in San Francisco and Nicholas Hirst in Brussels.

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