Google is misusing GDPR to gain more control and may provoke a backlash from its clients

John Nardone
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The tech giant is using GDPR to seize more control (Source: Getty)

The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has driven numerous privacy policy updates and shifts in the way many businesses operate, including Google.

But there are increasing concerns that some of the changes made by the tech giant aren’t just to meet compliance requirements, but instead are anti-competitive actions that expand its monopolistic advantages.

While on the face of it, Google’s recent adjustments appear to be improving privacy protection, there are multiple knock-on effects that would hand the company even greater control of the digital advertising ecosystem, and undermine market competition.

Read more: No weapons, no surveillance: Google boss sets out company's AI principles

Indeed, such are the internal advantages created by moves made under the guise of compliance that there is a rising industry backlash against the firm – most notably the open letter penned by four trade associations on behalf of publishers, questioning Google’s motives, and calling for it to share more liability under GDPR.

So, has Google gone so far that brands might begin to rethink their reliance on it?

The mess Google has made

Restrictions to the use of Google’s DoubleClick campaign management data came into effect on the 25 May, and hamper advertisers’ freedom to perform their own measurement and analytics. Independent assessment of media delivery, evaluation of the reach and frequency of Google campaigns against other platforms, and advanced “multi-touch attribution” by third parties are all impacted.

Google also suspended third-party ad serving on reserved buys on YouTube, and discontinued third-party pixel tracking, further impeding advertisers’ ability to independently validate ad delivery.

While these restrictions have been justified as necessary for privacy, credibility starts to fade when you look more closely.

It is hard to look past the fact that Google offers substitute capabilities, only limited to a black box attribution solution in Google Analytics 360 and its own cross-device tracking solution. So, consumers will still be tracked, but activity, monitoring, and measurement will all be controlled by Google.

This also effectively means that the company is marking its own homework when it comes to demonstrating return on investment, and leaving no opportunity for independent third-party verification. In fact, Google’s behaviour should make brands question whether they need to rethink their attribution methods.

Clients may fight back

On the one hand, these measures should theoretically help it protect user data and brand safety by keeping bad actors out. But because external scrutiny will be impossible as a result, this will further undermine the company’s credibility with advertisers, publishers, and the public, which is already fragile.

While adtech has its issues – such as fraud and brand safety – a lot of work is being done to counter this, and there are numerous companies which do play by the rules, and have transparency at heart. Many of these will be well-known by Google, suggesting that it should have taken a case-by-case approach, rather than a blanket ban to working with them.

What Google should be focusing on instead is working more collaboratively with those who do have an established reputation and a recognisable customer base. Clients don’t like to be dictated to in terms of whom they should work with, and if Google can ensure reputable suppliers are not penalised unfairly, it can still ward off client backlash.

Google, together with Facebook, currently controls over 80 per cent of global ad spend, but even so, making changes that are seen by clients as anti-competitive will backfire. No one likes to be held hostage, least of all the clients who spend the money.

Many are reacting with anger at having their options restricted and effectively being told that they have no choice but to trust Google.

As a result, conversations are already being had among brands, agencies, and publishers to reduce reliance on the tech giant and look at other options, and there are some worthy alternatives.

If Google wants to stop brands from exploring those other avenues, it may wish to refocus on the noble intentions of GDPR: to increase transparency and trust, and protect data. By failing to amend its latest industry damaging policies, Google’s market share could be affected, and how much it is eroded is still very much in its hands.

Read more: GDPR can rebuild trust in businesses plagued by high-profile scandals

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