The man investigating the ad tech industry on behalf of the UK data watchdog urged advertisers to consider their role in allowing people’s private data to be misused on an industrial scale.
Simon McDougall, executive director for technology and innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office, told today’s Lead conference in London that his team was pleased with the progress made on cleaning up the real-time bidding ecosystem, which he criticised last June for being "out of control".
The ICO launched the probe last summer after more than a year of complaints from privacy campaigners, who point out how data is recorded and shared widely among advertising exchanges through RTB, in violation of the General Data Protection Regulation.
Data controllers like the ICO have the power to impose large fines on GDPR transgressors: up to 4% of a company’s annual turnover up to €20m.
However, McDougall stressed that cleaning up an industrial data breach like open-market RTB required changing "an industry in lockstep". While he said the ICO was pleased with the progress made by Google and the IAB, the industry’s major players, on improving online advertising standards, there are many smaller ad tech companies that have not engaged with the RTB investigation.
McDougall compared the systemic failure of the RTB industry to the 2007 mortage crisis in the US that precipitated a global financial crisis. Therefore, he warned, the brands that ultimately funded online advertising needed to look more closely at where their ad budgets were going.
"My question to you, whether you're publishers, or ad tech firms, digital platforms, brands, is how you look back on that example of irresponsible leadership in software support relationship and consider your interaction with this particular market. Do you know what's going on in your supply chain? Do you know what data is being collected in your name?"
He went on: "In the end, it’s the brands that are funding all of his. If a regulator keeps on saying something is unethical, and it's illegal, it's problematic, at what point does it become an ethical issue for the brands to keep bankrolling those instances?"
McDougall also sought to clear up confusion over the way his recent statement about the RTB investigation had been interpreted. He stressed that the ICO was not "walking away" from holding bad actors to account. McDougall’s article on 17 January prompted outcry from the privacy experts that lodged complaints about RTB well over a year ago, such as the Brave browser’s chief policy and industry relations officer Johnny Ryan and UCL lecturer Michael Veale, for adopting a "timid approach".
"As we prepare for action, we have to be very careful to make sure that we continue to be proportionate, we continue to work on evidence and we do not predetermine what we’re going to do or find anyone guilty before things happen," McDougall told the conference.
"And that’s really hard because that part of the market wants to have a very quick headline and a quick tweet about some things to make themselves feel good, but we need to be more proportionate."
McDougall also stressed that the ICO was not alone in acting to safeguard online consumers’ data from bad ad tech actors, citing ongoing work by the Competition & Markets Authority, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, and counterpart data watchdogs across Europe.