Civil rights group taking case against online ad industry

16 Jun 2021

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The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is taking a case in Germany over data collection practices used by online advertisers.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) is suing a number of parties in the online advertising industry over alleged data privacy breaches.

It is filing a GDPR lawsuit in Germany against parties including IAB Tech Lab, which sets the rules for the likes of Google, Amazon and several other major companies when it comes to gathering data that powers online ads.

The ICCL is challenging the practice of gathering vast swathes of data on users, which it said is common industry practice. This data can include sensitive information, such as mental health conditions or financial status, that’s determined by the sites that a person visits.

Dr Johnny Ryan, senior fellow of ICCL, said the case will challenge the legality of collecting and using these databases.

“These secret dossiers about you – based on what you think is private – could prompt an algorithm to remove you from the shortlist for your dream job,” Ryan said. “A retailer might use the data to single you out for a higher price online. A political group might micro-target you with personalised disinformation.”

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While IAB Tech Lab is a US-based group, ICCL said it is filing the suit in Germany under GDPR. The ultimate aim is to stop widespread tracking in the online advertising industry.

ICCL and Ryan have regularly criticised the online advertising industry’s practices and specifically real-time bidding, or RTB, which is the process where these dossiers of user data are bought and sold by advertisers.

ICCL claims that there are few limits in place around what data is collected for selling in this way and that constitutes a data breach.

Last year, it released a report claiming that the Irish Data Protection Commission is failing to act when it comes to concerns about RTB systems in the online advertising industry.

Separately, a European group called Tracking-Free Ads Coalition, made up of politicians and civil society, is also calling for reforms in the online advertising industry. Several MEPs have joined the group.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

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