Advertisers warn new data rules will give Google more power

Key information on users will not be visible when bidding for ads due to privacy concerns

Google has announced a significant change to its online advertising business that it said would enhance user privacy but which advertisers warned would give the search giant even more power.

From next February, Google will no longer allow advertisers to see key information known as “contextual content” about web pages when they bid for display adverts.

Google allows advertisers to see the categories of web pages or apps, ranging from subjects such as music and audio, or autos and vehicles, to more sensitive topics such as substance abuse or kosher foods.

Chetna Bindra, from Google’s user trust and privacy team, said Google had decided to remove the information after discussions with data protection regulators. She said the change would stop advertisers from tying sensitive categories such as health, religion, politics and sexual orientation to any individual user.


The move will “help avoid the risk that any participant in our auctions is able to associate individual ad identifiers with Google’s contextual content categories”, she said.

Health data

The decision came shortly after a Financial Times investigation which found that some of the UK’s most popular health websites share sensitive health data, including medical symptoms and diagnoses, with companies including Google.

The search company’s advertising arm, DoubleClick, was a destination for data from 78 per cent of the top 100 health websites.

There is also an ongoing investigation by the Irish data protection authority into Google’s online advertising exchange, known as Authorized Buyers, which sits at the centre of the bidding process for online adverts.

Following complaints from the browser company Brave, the European regulator is looking into whether Google's online advertising exchange illegally taps into sensitive personal information about internet users.

The investigation will look at how data is being processed, the level of transparency involved and whether Google is doing enough to minimise the amount of information it uses.

Not sufficient

Johnny Ryan, chief policy officer at Brave, said Google's change was not sufficient to protect the privacy of users.

“It appears Google will still broadcast bid requests that contain things like URL, approximate location and data to link these over time, to countless companies, billions of times a day. These data contain personal and special category data so this appears to be a cosmetic change,” he said.

Meanwhile, advertisers and publishers said the move could increase Google’s control over user data and further entrench its dominance in online advertising.

"No company tracks the public across the web and our digital lives more than Google. Although certain contextual categories can be sensitive, a blanket decision like this impacting the entire media ecosystem illustrates the global antitrust concerns in Google's dominance over the ad stack," said Jason Kint, chief executive officer of Digital Content Next, a US trade association for online publishers.

Third-party data

He added that without third-party data about users, the value of “first-party” data, which is directly entered by users into websites, will rise to advertisers.

“This decision will at least enhance value of first-party data and Google Search is the most dominant place for first-party data, so it will hurt everyone except Google,” he said.

Big brands and ad agencies have long been alarmed over the control Google and other big tech groups hold over customer data and the power this gives them as a channel for advertising.

While the revisions reflect the increasing regulatory scrutiny of data transfers, senior figures suspect one side-effect will be tightening Google’s grip over data, and potentially driving more business to its search advertising arm. One advertising chief executive said a restriction of data would simply mean “more power to Google”.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019