Warren Urges Investigation Into Potential Antitrust Practices by Google

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has sent a letter to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) urging the agency to investigate Google for potentially engaging in anti-competitive practices by manipulating and exerting wide control over the online advertising market.

In April, as part of another Texas antitrust case brought against the company, it was revealed that Google was running a covert operation to monitor online ad bids by other companies and using the information to bolster its own ad-buying program. “Project Bernanke,” which was not disclosed to bidders, evidently generated hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Google.

The Justice Department is probing Google over that project and other potentially anti-competitive online practices around advertising. But Warren says in her letter that she believes the CFTC, which regulates commodities and the derivatives market in the U.S., should conduct a broader scrutiny of the company.

“Today, the advertising market is functionally unregulated. It is a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and it is the main revenue driver for some of the country’s largest companies,” she writes. “The market for digital advertising has become perhaps the most actively traded commodity exchange in the world.”

Though the market is largely unregulated, Warren writes, “The market is subject to private regulation, however, by the dominant player in the market — Google. Google exercises that regulatory power to benefit itself and to exploit other market participants, both large and small.”

The senator then cites the 15 states and territories that are part of the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton following the original discovery of “Bernanke” to bolster her argument that Google exercises undue power over the online advertising market.

“Imagine if the financial markets are controlled by one monopoly company, say Goldman Sachs, and that company then owns the [New York Stock Exchange], which is the largest financial exchange, that then trades on that exchange to advantage itself, eliminate competition, and charge a monopoly tax on billions of daily transactions,” the states and territories wrote. “That is the world of online display advertising today.”

If these allegations are true, then they represent “deeply troublesome market manipulation” by Google, Warren says in her letter. The behavior is made especially concerning, Warren says, by the fact that the company doesn’t appear to be trying to hide their potentially anti-competitive practices.

“Given the power of a company like Google to unilaterally manipulate the online advertising market, it is critical that the CFTC ensures these new digital commodities are traded fairly and without harmful manipulation,” Warren concluded.

Online marketing is indeed largely unregulated, holding up a veil of secrecy to advertisers and their clients. This can cause undue harm, advocates have said for several years, to politics and the larger mission to fight disinformation online in general.

Warren’s letter is a continuation of a push from Washington, D.C. and other state and local governments to try to rein in tech companies. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine filed an antitrust lawsuit in May against Amazon for artificially inflating prices and the Federal Trade Commission recently lost an antitrust case against Facebook.

Warren herself is also involved in several efforts to break up big tech companies. She has mounted an effort to break up huge companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Advocates argue, as Truthout’s Mike Ludwig reported last month, that the companies hold too much political and market power while largely going unregulated.