Google adopts non-personal ad targeting for the GDPR

The PageFair Team GDPR

This note examines Google’s recent announcement on the GDPR. Google has sensibly adopted non-personal ad targeting. This is very significant step forward and signals a change in the online advertising market. But Google has also taken a new and problematic approach to consent for personal data use in advertising that publishers will find hard to accept. 

Google decides to use non-personal ad targeting to comply with the GDPR 

Last Thursday Google sent a policy update to business partners across the Internet announcing that it would launch an advertising service based on non-personal data in order to comply with the GDPR.[1]

PageFair has advocated a non-personal approach to advertising for some time, and commends Google for taking this position. As we noted six months ago,[2] Google AdWords, for example, can operate without consent if it discards personalized targeting features (and unique IDs). In this case, advertisers can continue to target advertisements to people based on what they search for.

This may be part of a trend for Google, which announced in mid 2017 that it would stop mining personal e-mails in Gmail to inform its ad targeting. Clearly, few users would have given consent for this.[3] Google’s latest announcement has signaled to advertisers the importance of buying targeted advertising without personalization.

Although Google’s “non-personalized ads” may seem promising to advertisers and publishers who are concerned about GDPR liability, more work must be done before they can be considered safe.

Unique tracking IDs are currently vital to Google’s ability to perform frequency capping and bot detection.[4] Meanwhile, data leakage is a problem caused by 3rd party ad creatives liberally loading numerous tracking pixels. Google has been silent on fixing these problems. Therefore, it may be that Google will merely target ads with non-personal data, but will continue to perform tracking as usual. Clarity on this point will be important for advertisers seeking safe inventory.

Problems with Google’s approach to consent for personal data

Despite its new non-personalized ads, Google is also attempting to build a legal basis under the GDPR for its existing personal data advertising business. It has told publishers that it wants them to obtain their visitors’ consent to “the collection, sharing, and use of personal data for personalization of ads or other services”.[5]

Note that the purpose here is “personalization of ads or other services”. This is appears to be a severe conflation of the many separate processing purposes involved in advertising personalization.[6] The addition of “other services” makes the conflation even more egregious. As we previously observed in our note on the approach proposed by IAB Europe, this appears to be a severe breach of Article 5, which requires that consent be requested in a granular manner for “specified, explicit” purposes.[7] As noted in a previous PageFair note, European regulators have explicitly warned against conflating purposes in this way:

“If the controller has conflated several purposes for processing and has not attempted to seek separate consent for each purpose, there is a lack of freedom. This granularity is closely related to the need of consent to be specific …. When data processing is done in pursuit of several purposes, the solution to comply with the conditions for valid consent lies in granularity, i.e. the separation of these purposes and obtaining consent for each purpose”.[8] 

Controller-controller 

Google is asking publishers to obtain consent from their visitors for it to be an independent controller of those users’ personal data.[9] Confusingly, Google has called this a “controller-controller” policy. This evokes “joint-controllership”, a concept in the GDPR that would require force both Google and publisher to jointly determine the purposes and means of processing, and to be transparent with each other.[10] However, what Google proposes is not joint-controllership, but rather independent controllership for the publisher on the one hand, and for Google on the other. Google’s “controller-controller” terms to publishers define each party as

“an independent controller of Controller Personal Data under the Data Protection Legislation; [that] will individually determine the purposes and means of its processing of Controller Personal Data”.[11]

It is not clear why a publisher would choose to do this, since it would enable Google to leverage that publisher’s audience across the entire web (severe conflation of purposes notwithstanding). The head of Digital Content Next, a publisher trade body that represents Disney, New York Times, CBS, and so forth, has already announced that “no way in hell Google will be “co-controller” across publishers’ sites”.[12]

Further problems with Google’s new approach to consent 

Even if publishers did accept that Google could be a controller of their visitors’ data for its own purposes, it is unlikely that many visitors would give their consent for this.[13]

If, however, both a publisher and a visitor were to agree to Google’s controller-controller proposal, two further problems arise. First, when a publisher shares third party personal data with Google, Google’s terms require that the publisher “must use commercially reasonable efforts to ensure the operator of the third party property complies with the above duties [of obtaining adequate consent]”.[14] This phrase “commercially reasonable efforts” is not a meaningful defence in the event that personal data are unlawfully processed.

As one expert from a European data protection authority retorted when I researched this point: “Imagine this as legal defence line: ‘We did not obtain consent because if wasn’t possible with commercially reasonable efforts’?” The Regulation is clear that “each controller or processor shall be held liable for the entire damage”, where more than one controller or processor are “involved in the same processing”.[15]

Second, Google’s policy puts what appears to be an impossible burden on the publisher. It requires that the publisher accurately inform the visitor about how their data will be used if they give consent.

“You must clearly identify each party that may collect, receive, or use end users’ personal data as a consequence of your use of a Google product. You must also provide end users with prominent and easily accessible information about that party’s use of end users’ personal data”.[16]

However, the publisher does not know what personal data Google shares with its own business partners. Nor does it know what purposes these parties process data about its visitors for. So long as this continues, a publisher cannot be in a position to inform its visitors of what will be done with their data. The result is very likely to be a breach Article 6[17] and Article 13[18] of the GDPR.

Giving Google the benefit of the doubt, this may change before 25 May. Google plans to publish some information about its “uses of information and we are asking other ad technology providers with which Google’s products integrate to make available information about their own uses of personal data.”[19] Publishers will not be well served by any further delay in the provision of this information.

Risks for Google 

Google’s decision to rely on non-personal data for ad targeting is highly significant, and will enable the company and advertisers that work with it to operate under the GDPR. However, Google’s new consent policy is fraught with issues that make it impossible for publishers to adopt. Our GDPR risk scale, first published for Google in August 2017, remains unchanged.


Perimeter is a robust regulatory firewall. It preemptively blocks unauthorized requests from 3rd parties, and tightly controls personal data on your website and app. It protects you, your advertising business, and your users. Perimeter makes sure that consent means something.

Learn more

Notes

[1] “Changes to our ad policies to comply with the GDPR”, Google Inside AdWords, 22 March 2018 (URL: https://adwords.googleblog.com/2018/03/changes-to-our-ad-policies-to-comply-with-the-GDPR.html).

[2] “How the GDPR will disrupt Google and Facebook”, PageFair Insider, August 2017 (URL: https://pagefair.com/blog/2017/gdpr_risk_to_the_duopoly/).

[3] ibid.

[4] For alternative methods of performance measurement and reporting see “Frequency capping and ad campaign measurement under GDPR”, PageFair Insider, November 2017 (URL: https://pagefair.com/blog/2017/gdpr-measurement1/).

[5] “EU user consent policy”, Google, to apply from 25 May 2018 (URL: https://www.google.com/about/company/consentstaging.html)

[6] See discussion of data processing purposes in online behavioural advertising, and the degree of granularity required in consent, in “GDPR consent design: how granular must adtech opt-ins be?”, PageFair Insider, January 2018 (URL: https://pagefair.com/blog/2018/granular-gdpr-consent/).

[7] The GDPR, Article 5, paragraph 1, b, and note reference to the principle of “purpose limitation”. See also Recital 43. For more on the purpose limitation principle see “Opinion 03/2013 on purpose limitation”, Article 29 Working Party, 2 April 2013.

[8] “Guidelines on consent under Regulation 2016/679”, WP259, Article 29 Working Party, 28 November 2017, p. 11.

[9] “Google Ads Controller-Controller Data Protection Terms, Version 1.1”, Google, 12 October 2017 (URL: https://privacy.google.com/businesses/controllerterms/).

[10] See The GDPR, Article 26.

[11] Clause 4.1 of “Google Ads Controller-Controller Data Protection Terms, Version 1.1”, Google, 12 October 2017 (URL: https://privacy.google.com/businesses/controllerterms/).

[12] Jason Kint, Twitter, 22 March 2018 (URL: https://twitter.com/jason_kint/status/976928024011726848)

[13] “Research result: what percentage will consent to tracking for advertising?”, PageFair Insider, 12 September 2017 (URL: https://pagefair.com/blog/2017/new-research-how-many-consent-to-tracking/).

[14] “EU user consent policy”, Google, to apply from 25 May 2018 (URL: https://www.google.com/about/company/consentstaging.html)

[15] The GDPR, Article 4, paragraph 2.

[16] “EU user consent policy”, Google, to apply from 25 May 2018 (URL: https://www.google.com/about/company/consentstaging.html)

[17] The GDPR, Article 6, paragraph 1, a.

[18]  [20] The GDPR, Article 13, paragraph 2, f, and Recital 60.

[19] “Help with the EU user consent policy”, Google (URL:https://www.google.com/about/company/consenthelpstaging.html)