There's a prescient New York Times article about Google's purchase of the online ad giant DoubleClick for $3.1B in 2007: "The sale also raises questions about how Google will manage its existing business and that of the new DoubleClick unit while avoiding conflicts of interest," note the authors.
Guess what? Google didn't and, for a long time, no one seemed to care.
Now, more than a decade after the ink dried, the US Department of Justice unveiled a sweeping anti-trust case against Google "for monopolizing digital advertising technologies."
Sure, Google's apparent violation of the long-standing Sherman Act might seem dry and have little to do with consumers, but Google's vice-like control of the ad tech business, including display, the auction that fills those ad spaces, the relationships with advertisers, and the relationship with publishers who display those ads often defines our online experience.
Atop that 2007 New York Times article is what we call a banner ad -- and as billions of other online ads are, It's served by Google. You can tell this by the little triangle and "x" in the upper right corner. If you click on one of those, it hides the ad and shows you "Ads by Google" with two buttons below it. One is "Stop Seeing this ad" and the other is "Why this ad?"
These are Google's way of giving consumers some consent and control over their ad experience. The reality, though, is the only one in control is, at least according to the DOJ, Google.
When Google purchased DoubleClick in 2007, the latter company was already the chief provider of most online banner ads across virtually any site you visited. They would basically help sites sell what could be a lot of unsold inventory or traffic to the site. Put another way, if The New York Times has 30 million pageviews a month and its sales team sells display space on just 10 million of those views, the rest of it might go through DoubleClick to sell to its network of less differentiated advertisers.
As Google was buying the already successful platform, DoubleClick was just about to launch its ad exchange, a sort of Nasdaq-like stock exchange for ad inventory. This automated even more of the ad inventory sale process and when Google did launch the technology, it gave the search giant even greater control of the online ad market.
If you're wondering why so many of the ads you see online are what might charitably be called "garbage," this is the reason. They're tied to things like location, time of day, and where you were prior to viewing that page, but rarely aligned with a value proposition or even your interests when viewing that page.
Google said it itself
The DOJ painted a pretty dark picture of Google's ad tech business practices but mostly by using Google's own words. They quoted multiple Google execs (though they did not name a single one).
One, according to the DOJ, asked, "Is there a problem with us owning the platform, the exchange, and the huge network?"
Naturally, the DOJ answered, "Yes."
The DOJ said Google described its own platform as an "authoritarian intermediary," and it made the work of trying to switch away from Google's platform "a nightmare that...takes an act of god" - again, Google's own words, according to the DOJ.
Alleged in the antitrust charges is that Google engaged in exclusionary acts, locked content creators into its platform, manipulated the auctions they used to fill ad inventory, and blocked customers from using rival technologies.
Quite honestly, no ad-serving rival has a comparable business or control of the ad network. Spend some time looking at any of the dozens of web pages you'll view today and you will see those same two telltale marks. This is Google's ad game, one in which it has allegedly played both sides against its own middle and made it almost impossible for anyone else to enter, let alone win.
The DOJ's case is just beginning and it may be years before it achieves its goals of applying what could be billions of dollars in fines against Google and forcing the company to divest some portion of its adtech business.
It's a shame no one heeded The New York Times's warnings: "If DoubleClick’s existing clients start to feel that Google is using DoubleClick’s relationships to further its own ad network, some Web publishers or advertisers might jump ship."
No one jumped ship and now the questions are, how does Google navigate this DOJ iceberg that's right ahead, and will the DOJ's actions improve your web browsing experience?
By the way, since we can't control our ads except block them, perhaps you want to check out our list of the best web browsers. Surely, one of them will do a better job of managing your web and ad experience than Google (unless it's Chrome, and then it's Google all over again).
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.