Google Accidentally Unveils Secret Ad Project

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Google is headed to trial in a Texas-led antitrust lawsuit that accuses the search giant of what is essentially insider trading in digital ad markets.

In documents filed for the case, the Silicon Valley firm inadvertently revealed a secret program called “Project Bernanke,” which showed it collects historical bidding data from an ad exchange it operates — and participates in. Texas prosecutors allege Google uses the program to undercut rival ad buying tools and gain a competitive edge while trading as both an ad buyer and seller.

Law & Order: Silicon Valley Unit

The documents that revealed Project Bernanke were initially filed electronically without redactions and have since been amended. But it was too little too late: they’d already publicly revealed the program made hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the company.

Texas prosecutors say that’s a big problem.

That’s because, though Google itself acts as the exchange operator, it also buys ads for itself and clients through the exchange to display on its own platforms like search and YouTube. Access to the data, Texas prosecutors say, gives Google an unfair competitive edge to boost its clients’ win rate in ad auctions. It may also allow Google to funnel other publishers toward certain prices to score ad placement.

Google argues the data collected by Project Bernanke is comparable to “data maintained by other buying tools.” In 2019, Google Chief Economist Hal Varian said at an antitrust conference in Chicago that the company is sometimes “on both the buy side and the sell side.” Asked to elaborate on how the company dealt with those two roles, he said it was “too detailed for the audience, and me.”

Triple Threat: The Texas-led lawsuit, which includes eight other states, is one of three major antitrust lawsuits Google currently faces in the United States.

In October 2020, the DoJ filed an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s status as default search engine on most smartphones. Two months later, in December 2020, nearly 40 attorney generals filed a lawsuit accusing Google of tilting search results in favor of its own services over those of its rivals.

the takeaway

Let’s hope Google doesn’t reign in its redacting crew before its other anti-trust lawsuits go to trial.