Google under investigation in France for alleged abuse in the online advertising market

On 30 June 2010, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) issued an interim decision opening an investigation to ascertain whether Google abused its dominant position, as well as Navx’s state of economic dependence, by terminating its AdWords contract and refusing to display Navx’s advertisements.  Pending the full investigation, the FCA also ordered Google to implement in an objective, transparent and non- discriminatory manner the content policy of its AdWords service.  On 13 July 2010, in order to address the competition concerns raised by the FCA and to close the dispute, Google offered certain commitments.

The case was prompted by a complaint filed by Navx, a content provider for mapping services for GPS navigation devices (online databases showing the location of speed cameras, fuel prices and restaurants).  Navx heavily relied on Google’s AdWords advertising services (accounting for 85% of its advertising expenses), which is Navx’s preferred sales channel (customers can reach directly the commercial website and buy the product in a few minutes).

Navx complained that Google was illegally blocking its adverts of speed cameras databases (AdWords’ general conditions were lacking objectivity and transparency as  regards the possibility for manufacturers of speed camera databases to advertise), and that, partly because of the lack of clarity and objectivity of its AdWords policy, Google behavior resulted in a discriminatory treatment between suppliers of such databases (e.g. GPS manufacturers, like TomTom and Garmin, could continue to promote the supply of such databases on their websites without being excluded from the AdWords service).

While Google had originally stated that its terms and conditions did not authorize adverts that encourage illegal practices, such as sale of services aimed at evading road traffic speed cameras, it then offered the following commitments applicable to its AdWords services in France:

  • Clarify whether its policy conditions apply to speed camera warning systems and speed camera databases;
  • Clarify whether the ban concerns only the use of keywords and the advertising of products in the text of the announcement or on the page accessible via the commercial link, or if it also concerns further pages accessible from the latter;
  • Publish all the changes in the conditions concerning speed camera warning systems and speed camera databases in a new “log history page” in the AdWords blog;
  • Clarify that the violation of AdWords policy concerning speed camera warning systems and speed camera databases may lead to the refusal of displaying the advertisement, the suspension of the account and/or the prevention of opening new accounts.

Interested third parties may submit comments on the above commitments before 13 September 2010.  The FCA may then decide whether such commitments are sufficient to address the competition concerns it has raised and make them binding on Google. [Gabriele Accardo]