Google flies high — into regulatory threats

FILE PHOTO - The Google logo is pictured atop an office building in Irvine, California, U.S. August 7, 2017.   REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo    GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD     SEARCH GLOBAL BUSINESS OCT 23 FOR ALL IMAGES

Is it possible to win so much that you end up losing? That’s one question facing Google and some of its tech compatriots as they prepare to testify before congressional investigations into Russian meddling next week.

Google continues to pile on billions in ad revenue every quarter. But like its chief rival Facebook, it’s being pressured to rein in its hyper-efficient advertising machine.

Google and Facebook dominate the U.S. digital ad market — Google will take 42% and Facebook 21% of U.S. digital ad revenue this year, according to eMarketer. But pressure to limit the spread of fake news and curb foreign influence in elections could crimp revenue and raise costs in the future if the companies, for instance, have to add further human oversight to their machine-powered algorithms.

Both Facebook and Twitter have already announced plans to make political ads more transparent in line with a bill introduced last week by Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar. Facebook said it was adding 1,000 human checkers to review ads. Google hasn’t said how it might comply with potential new rules around political ads, but observers say it’s unlikely to get a free pass from Congress.

“It’s hard to know whether Congress or regulators will actually step up and regulate the company, but there seems to be a newfound willingness to consider such action,” says Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog that tracks Google spending on lobbyists and academics. “Google, like every other industry, should not be left to its own devices.”

Google was hit in June with a $2.9 billion fine by European Union for harming competitors, and in response, it has tweaked its product search results in Europe by allowing competitive online retailers to bid for premium spots in a search results pane. EU regulators have said they will keep a watchful eye on whether the adjustment actually gives equal treatment to rivals.

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