Google is under antitrust scrutiny from both the federal government and the states, whose law-enforcement agencies are increasingly skeptical that its dominant market position has been fairly won.
Much of the particulars of Google’s behavior have remained under court seal. But, due to a filing error by one of Google’s very expensive antitrust attorneys, new details regarding the alleged ways it crushes competitors in the digital ad market have accidentally been made public.
We now know the details of Project Bernanke, in which Google used its knowledge of past ad bids to alter bids put forward by its clients, giving Google an advantaged position to win auctions for ad impressions over other market rivals. The company kept this information hidden from news publishers who also sell ads through Google’s ad-buying system, and in the process, the project raked in more than $200 million a year.
There are also new details about Jedi Blue, a secret collusion deal between Facebook and Google to give Facebook a preferential position in ad auctions, purportedly in exchange for Facebook’s agreement not to compete with Google in the online advertising space.
All of this sheds more light on Google’s murky, near-total control of the digital advertising market, where it is the operator of the dominant ad exchange as well as both a buyer and a seller. The Texas antitrust case analogizes Google’s position to being the pitcher, the batter, and the umpire in the same baseball game.
Google has intentionally kept details of the space opaque, however, by claiming the rest of us are too stupid to understand how it works. Google’s chief economist, MIT-trained mathematician Hal Varian, has said Google’s ad business is “too detailed” to explain publicly. In response to an antitrust lawsuit brought by Texas against its digital ad dominance, Google claimed the state had a “deep misunderstanding” of the digital market.
In other words, us dumb rubes should kneel to our betters, and believe whatever the smart set tells us. While it is unclear why Google chose “Bernanke” as a moniker for its project, the hat tip to the former chair of the Federal Reserve is rather apropos. Ben Bernanke oversaw the financial crisis that resulted from all of the country’s rating agencies and regulators telling us to ignore what both evidence and common sense were suggesting.
“Trust us,” said the quantitative financial analysts in 2008. “We’re very smart,” they claimed, right before they tanked the entire US economy.
It’s funny, until it’s not. Google’s actions in the market, particularly in the digital advertising space, have distorted the marketplace and crushed entire competitors and industries under their dominant weight. America’s news business, from the New York Post to The Washington Post, CNN to Fox News, has suffered the brunt of Big Tech companies, which, according to one study, make billions from circulating the content of news publishers while paying nothing for the privilege.
Together, Google and Facebook command more than half of the digital advertising revenue, billions of dollars of which once sustained America’s journalism industry. The companies claim that dominance has been both fair and good for the news media.
But the Texas complaint against Google claims the opposite: “Google’s ad-buying intermediaries . . . do not act in the best interest of their clients. Google subjects the smaller and less sophisticated advertisers to complicated arbitrages that are extraordinarily difficult to understand.”
After the leak of Project Bernanke, it seems as though publishers may have also been misled, competing in an unfair market where Google had a clear information advantage. In a market where Google has the dominant information advantage to privilege itself, competitors suffer — and so do consumers. When news outlets are deprived of ad revenue from the circulation of their own content, the profits they would use to spur new content, product offerings and better journalism suffer.
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, called Project Bernanke and Jedi Blue “cute project code names,” but ones that obscured hundreds of millions of dollars in profits — or, “enough [money] to fund all of the journalists that lost their jobs in 2020.”
“Everyone,” Kint noted, “should be infuriated.”
Though Google cloaks its digital ad business with the imprimatur of high intellectualism and technical complexity, strip away the technocratic language and what’s left is an age-old motivator: greed. The millions of dollars Google will undoubtedly pay to the economic experts and antitrust attorneys to confuse and distort the issues at hand should not overlook this fundamental truth.
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