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Aussie adtech firm Unlockd takes on Google in UK courts over app advertising

Adtech platform Unlockd is fighting Google in the UK courts in a dispute that has derailed the mobile advertising company’s planned share market float.

The company, backed by high-profile investors including Lachlan Murdoch, former Seven Group CEO Peter Gammell and Catch of the Day masterminds Hezi and Gabby Leibovich, was expecting to list on the ASX later this year despite CEO and co-founder Matt Berriman stepping down to an executive director role in February.

Unlockd co-founder and former CEO Matt Berriman stepped down from the company in February due to mental health issues

The service, which displays ads on users’ smartphone lock screens in return for loyalty rewards, was founded in 2015 and to date has raised $68 million from investors while claiming to have returned over $15m worth of rewards to participants.

Google has threatened to suspend the company from its AdMob mobile advertising platform and from Google Play Store for breaching its terms and conditions. As Unlockd only operates on Google’s Android platform, this would cripple the company’s income.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement: “Our publicly available AdMob and Google Play policies clearly set out how our products may be used, and are designed to protect the interests of advertisers, publishers and phone users.

“We explained our concerns to Unlockd, outlined how they could fix the problems or use alternatives, and gave them time to make changes. And despite having agreed at the outset to comply with our product policies, their app remains in infringement today.”

In response Berriman told Mumbrella: “Google’s threats to withdraw Unlockd’s access are a reversal from its previous position. We have received formal written approval from Google on two separate occasions validating Unlockd’s app for use with AdMob, and Google has also acknowledged that the app is consistent with their policies.

“Unlockd has not made any changes to the app that justifies a change of approach. The legal advice we have received is that Google’s actions represent an abuse of Google’s dominant market position and are intended to eliminate our innovative offering from scaling and being in a position to compete with Google. We believe this stifling of competition is harmful to consumers.”

In an attempt to not be suspended from Google’s services, Unlockd has taken out an injunction against the online advertising giant in the UK High Court and is threatening to report the company for uncompetitive behaviour to various competition regulators including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the US Federal Trade Commission and the European Commissioner for Competition.

Google claims its concerns are around Unlockd’s app interfering with the operation of devices and other apps, as well as what it says is the intrusive overuse of the services’s interstitial ads.

Unlockd’s public statement says: “Unlockd, the ‘attention based’ mobile rewards platform, confirms that it has applied for an injunction with the UK High Court to prevent Google from disabling AdMob generated advertising content and removing Unlockd apps from the Google Play Store.

“Unlockd’s legal counsel has confidence that the threats made by Google to withdraw access and the supply of services in respect of Google Play and AdMob represent an abuse of its dominant position and breach of competition rules.

“It is particularly striking that Google’s warnings emerged at a time of speculation around an Unlockd IPO in mid-April 2018. Google’s anti-competitive conduct is preventing Unlockd from raising capital to continue its rapid expansion and innovation, and therefore protecting Google from a growing and potential competitor.

“The IPO has been postponed pending the resolution of this matter. Notwithstanding the legal action, we continue to explore all possible avenues to find a solution that works for both parties and avoids unnecessary disruption to our partners and customers.”

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