Google's $750 million acquisition of AdMob may be in jeopardy. The Federal Trade Commission is taking a closer look at Google's acquisition (number 56 of 64 acquisitions to date) and could block it if the FTC finds the deal is anticompetitive.
Google received a blow Tuesday when Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) sent a letter to FTC Chairman Jonathan Leibowitz asking for a review because of the acquisition's potential long-term effects on competition in the mobile advertising market.
Industry analysts expect more Internet searches to be made on smartphones. The estimated revenue from advertising delivered via handheld devices will skyrocket from $416 million to $1.56 billion in 2013, Kohl said in his letter.
"It is therefore of vital importance to be wary of any transaction that would create undue market dominance of search or application-based advertising on mobile devices such as smartphones," he wrote. "Allowing any one firm to dominate this market could result in higher prices for mobile advertising on the Internet and with respect to smartphone applications, and also could result in lower revenues realized by application developers."
"While we're continuing to work with the FTC, there is overwhelming evidence that mobile advertising will remain competitive after this deal closes," said Adam Kovacevich, senior manager at Google. "Mobile-app advertising is less than two years old, there are more than a dozen mobile-ad networks, app developers and advertisers routinely use multiple networks, and the lead mobile-app platform, Apple, is now entering the mobile-ad space as well."
Kohl's move comes after the FTC sent letters to AdMob competitors asking for comments on Google's acquisition of the mobile display-advertising company.
"I doubt many of them were in favor of Google entering their space, but the substance behind any complaints they have will determine how aggressively the FTC pursues the case," said Ilan Barzilay, an antitrust attorney and partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Boston.
Observers aren't surprised by the reaction to Google's acquisition of AdMob. "Because of Google's size, profile and share of the search market, every acquisition it makes is going to be closely scrutinized, as it learned when it acquired DoubleClick a few years ago," Barzilay said.
When Google announced the acquisition on Nov. 9, it also created a web site dedicated to describing the deal and an information page dedicated to the mobile-advertising space.
"No doubt it hoped that the information on the site would heed off a number of potential issues, including antitrust concerns," Barzilay said.
It may have helped inform consumers, but it didn't stop other groups from filing complaints.
A Difficult Task
Just weeks after Google said it was acquiring AdMob, a handful of groups filed complaints with the FTC, including the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog. The groups not only asked the FTC to investigate whether Google's access to AdMob technology will provide it with an unfair advantage over competitors, but also asked the agency to block the deal.
"The mobile-advertising market is still nascent and segmented and doesn't yet have a nine-hundred-pound gorilla," Barzilay said. "No doubt Google would likely fill that role, but it's not clear that simply acquiring AdMob will give Google market control in mobile advertising."
"If the FTC does launch a case against Google, it will have a more difficult task of proving anticompetitive effects than had Google been planning on purchasing another search provider," Barzilay added. Google's presence in mobile advertising is not nearly as big as it is in Internet search. "And without clear anticompetitive effects, it will be difficult to block the deal."