Probe into UK’s online advertising industry resumes

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has resumed its investigation into the country’s £13bn online advertising industry after a nearly nine-month-long hiatus due to the pandemic.

The watchdog said in January last year it would begin investigating the UK’s adtech sector after it found evidence of widespread non-compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

But the investigation was paused in May, with the regulator citing a reluctance to place “undue pressure on any industry at this time”. It added, however, that its “concerns about adtech remain and we aim to restart our work in the coming months”.

Among the focuses of the ICO’s probe will be real-time bidding, the process by which advertisements are selected to show to users across the internet. These digital auctions, which take place in a matter of milliseconds while web pages load, offer little chance for user consent and can sometimes use sensitive “special category” data, such as sexual and and political orientation.

“Enabling transparency and protecting vulnerable citizens are priorities for the ICO,” said Simon McDougall, the ICO’s deputy commissioner for regulatory innovation and technology. “The complex system of real-time bidding can use people’s sensitive personal data to serve adverts and requires people’s explicit consent, which is not happening right now.”

The ICO also said that it would study the role of data brokers in the adtech ecosystem. Regulators have been concerned for years about how the industry processes personal data, with third parties collecting information ranging from religion and gender to net worth.

In October, the ICO completed an investigation into data broking activities by the credit agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It also served an enforcement notice on Experian, requiring it to “make fundamental changes to how it handles people’s personal data within its direct marketing services”.

Mark Thompson, global lead for KPMG’s privacy advisory practice, welcomed the decision to resume the probe. “Whilst many in the industry may have breathed a sigh of relief when the ICO initially paused its investigation, today’s announcement should come as no surprise and should be taken as a real signal of intent from the regulator.”


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