Irish Council for Civil Liberties files privacy lawsuit over online ads

Organisation takes on online advertising industry in German courts under GDPR

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) filed a lawsuit on Wednesday in a German court against the world’s online advertising industry.

The not-for-profit organisation said its lawsuit takes aim at tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter by challenging industry rules.

Dr Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at ICCL, told The Irish Times the lawsuit was necessary because the Data Protection Commission in Ireland, along with regulators in other jurisdictions, had failed to act on formal complaints the organisation had submitted over the past three years.

“We are boldly going where enforcers have failed to go, marking the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR]’s third anniversary by using the right to go to court directly,” he said.


GDPR, which came into effect in May 2018, gives data regulators powers to fine companies up to 4 per cent of their global turnover of the previous year or €20 million, whichever is greater, for violating the data privacy law.

Included in the ICCL’s lawsuit is the online advertising industry’s rulebook for building profiles or what it calls “secret dossiers” about individuals.

ICCL’s lawsuit will, it is hoped, force the online advertising industry to stop tracking everyone online.

Mr Ryan said the organisation was focused on challenging the secret dossier system and the online advertising industry that feeds it.

“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. 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,” he said.

At issue is real-time bidding systems, the core of today's online advertising industry and through which companies such as Google and publishing groups sell ads through a bidding process. The method, which collects people's browsing history and broadcasts it to hundreds or thousands of companies so they can auction and place ads, is used by member companies of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which has more than 650 members and is a defendant in the lawsuit.

ICCL said it would submit hundreds of pages of evidence to the court in Hamburg on users’ personal data harvested from real-time bidding systems.

Hamburg has been chosen as New York-based IAB Tech Lab, the affiliated standard-setting body for IAB, which has an office in the city, subjecting the local unit to GDPR. – Additional reporting: Reuters

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist