A Google executive faced bipartisan grilling in the Senate on Tuesday over the company's dominance in digital advertising, in a preview of arguments the tech giant is likely to soon face from antitrust regulators.
Google's massive search and advertising businesses are at the heart of investigations by the Justice Department and nearly every state attorney general. The department is reportedly getting ready to file a lawsuit against the company in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, senators on a Judiciary subcommittee pressed Donald Harrison, Google's president of global partnerships and corporate development, on the scope and scale of the company's digital advertising business.
"Do you know of any other company that exercises this kind of concentration and dominance across every layer of the ad stack?" asked Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., referring to the collection of tools linking advertisers to publishers. Google is involved in nearly every step in the chain between advertisers seeking to place their ads and the publishers selling space on their websites. Hawley pointed to findings from the United Kingdom's antitrust regulator showing that Google has dominant positions in various parts of the ad technology market, ranging from 40% to more than 90%.
Harrison, testifying remotely by video, responded that publishers and advertisers have choices other than Google. He pointed to the fact that digital advertising prices have fallen over the years as evidence that competition is robust.
Senators also pushed Harrison on how Google uses data from other services, such as search and Gmail, to benefit its ad business. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked why the digital advertising business shouldn't be regulated "to prevent conflicts of interest, inappropriate self-dealing and trading on inside information," as financial trading markets are regulated.
"I think there's tremendous choice. I think there's lots of competitors. I think prices have come down," Harrison replied. "I don't see the market failure that would require regulation."
While much of the hearing delved into the technical details of the digital ad market, Senate Republicans also took the opportunity to question Harrison about whether Google is biased against conservatives — a long-running complaint on the right for which there is little evidence.
Republicans, including Hawley, Ted Cruz of Texas and subcommittee chair Mike Lee of Utah, tried to frame their complaints about anti-conservative bias as evidence of Google's undue clout.
Lee said in his opening remarks that antitrust was not the right tool for solving concerns about bias and that such concerns were not the focus of the hearing.
His first question for Harrison, however, was about allegations that Google had banned a conservative website from its ad network.
"Isn't this behavior evidence of market power?" he asked.
Harrison responded that comments on the website, the Federalist, had violated Google's policies against racism. "We've been clear in our policies that our ads can't show up next to that kind of commentary," he said.
The looming antitrust case against Google comes amid broader scrutiny of whether big tech companies are stifling competition and harming consumers. The CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon testified together before a House committee in July, where they pushed back against charges that too much power has become concentrated in too few companies.
Editor's note: Google is among NPR's financial supporters.