ICO Opinion on Ad Tech – Old wine in a new bottle?
Does the ICO Opinion piece tell us anything new?
The ICO has published an “Opinion” which can be interpreted as a shot across the bows for any Ad Tech company who is planning to launch their new targeting solutions for the post-third-party cookie world.
If these companies thought new targeting solutions would get waved through because they don’t involve third-party cookies, it’s clear that Google’s difficulties with their Sandbox solution say otherwise.
Google is currently knee-deep in discussions with both Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) and ICO to come up with a targeting solution that is fair to consumers whilst also avoiding the accusation of being anti-competitive.
In the ICO’s opinion piece they set out the clear parameters for developing these solutions in a privacy-friendly manner. You won’t be too surprised to hear all the usual concerns being re-heated in this discussion. To quote the ICO:
- Engineer data protection requirements by default into the design of the initiative
- Offer users the choice of receiving adverts without tracking, profiling, or targeting based on personal data.
- Be transparent about how and why personal data is processed across the ecosystem and who is responsible for that processing
- Articulate the specific purposes for processing personal data and demonstrate how this is fair, lawful, and transparent
- Address existing privacy risks and mitigate any new privacy risks that the proposals introduce
- Legal requirements on cookie use;
- Lawfulness, fairness, and transparency;
- Controllership arrangements;
- Data retention;
- Risk assessments; and
- Application of data protection by design principles.
You can read the back story here:
The state of play in 2021
Since the ICO has started its investigations in 2019, the market has continued to develop new ways of targeting advertising that does not rely on third-party cookies. The net result is that the world has moved to a less intrusive way of tracking which has been welcomed by ICO. Some examples include:
- With Google Chrome’s announcement re: cookies, there is an expectation that third-party cookies will be phased out by end of 2022.
- There have been increases in the transparency of online tracking – notably Apple’s “App Tracking Transparency” ATT
- There are new mechanisms being developed to help individuals indicate their privacy preferences simply and effectively
- Browser developers are introducing tracking prevention in their software. A notable example is the Google Privacy Sandbox which will enable targeting with alternative technologies.
How should we interpret this opinion piece?
A lot of what has been included is information from the 2019 reports. In effect, it’s a summary of previous activities plus additional material to bring you up to date. Although it is a rather long piece, there is some clear guidance for the way forward for developers of new solutions.
Furthermore, it is bluntly warning technology firms that they are in the ICO’s sights:
“In general, the Commissioner’s view is that these developments are not yet sufficiently mature to assess in detail. They have not shown how they demonstrate participants’ compliance with the law, or how they result in better data protection outcomes compared to the existing ecosystem” Source: ICO
Data protection by design is paramount – no excuses for non-compliance this time
The ICO opinion clearly flags to developers that they will accept no excuses for developing non-compliant solutions. In the past, there have been difficulties because the Ad Tech solutions have been in place for some time with the data protection guidance being retrofitted to an existing ecosystem.
With the demise of third-party cookies and the advent of a variety of new solutions, there can be no excuse for ensuring that privacy is engineered into the design of the solutions.
It explicitly highlights the need to respect the interests, rights, and freedoms of individuals. Developers need to evidence that these considerations have been taken into account.
Users must be given a real choice
In the first instance, users must be given the ability to receive adverts without tracking, profiling, or targeting based on personal data. There must be meaningful control and developers must demonstrate that there is user choice through the data lifecycle.
Accountability – show your homework
There is an expectation that there will be transparency around how and why personal data is processed and who is responsible for that processing. In the current ecosystem, this is largely impossible to achieve and there is no transparency across the supply chain.
Articulate the purpose of processing data
Each new solution should describe the purpose of processing personal data and demonstrate how this is fair, lawful, and transparent. Can suppliers assess the necessity and proportionality of this processing? The 2019 report highlighted that the processing appeared excessive relative to the outcomes achieved. How will processors change their ways?
Addressing risk and reducing harm
As a start, it’s important to articulate the privacy risks, likely through a DPIA, but also explain how those risks will be mitigated. The previous ICO reports indicated their disappointment with the low volume of DPIAs produced by Ad Tech providers. This needed to change.
To conclude with a useful developer checklist
The ICO provides a checklist of how to apply these principles in practice. You can probably jump to this section if you really want to know what is expected:
- Demonstrate and explain the design choices.
- Be fair and transparent about the benefits.
- Minimise data collection and further processing.
- Protect users and give them meaningful control.
- Embed the principle of necessity and proportionality.
- Maintain lawfulness, risk assessments, and information rights.
- Consider the use of special category data.
The ICO is very clear that the industry must change. There is no appetite to approve solutions that fundamentally adopt the same flawed ways of working. There is also a clear acknowledgment that some solutions are potentially anti-competitive so a partnership with the CMA will continue. You have been warned!