Ex-Brave staffer launches GDPR sueball in Germany over tech giants’ real-time bidding for ad inventory

Former Brave chief policy officer Johnny Ryan is continuing his crusade against the online advertising industry by filing a lawsuit against Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and US telco AT&T in Germany.

Ryan’s latest campaign organisation, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), said in a statement that online advertising amounts to “the Biggest. Data. Breach. Ever” and accusing internet adland of compiling “secret dossiers” on every single netizen.

“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,” said Ryan. “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.”

German law is rather more robust than most EU countries’ privacy protections, even allowing for the GDPR, which explains the ICCL’s choice of legal venue for the sueball. With Britain being outside the EU and subject to its own UK GDPR (a frozen-in-time snapshot of the EU law as it was on 31 December 2020) with limited bloc-wide enforcement potential, there was little chance he was likely to sue in London.

The latest lawsuit sees Ryan and his legal advisors taking aim at one of the practices of IAB TechLab, where IAB stands for the Interactive Advertising Bureau. IAB is, in the ICCL’s words, a New York-based body which “sets the rules that govern Google and Facebook and the global online advertising industry.”

ICCL continued: “The private things we do online are collected from a vast online advertising system that operates behind the scenes on virtually every website and app. This online advertising system [is] called Real-Time Bidding (RTB).”

RTB is the process that matches adverts with viewers advertisers want to reach. As a technological innovation for Big Tech companies to make money from advertisers, it has far surpassed anything anyone else has devised for microtargeting ads at consumers.

A machine-translated version of the ICCL’s complaint to the Hamburg Landsgericht, a court of first instance, can be read on its website as a PDF. It calls for a €250,000 fine – or a prison sentence of two years.

Readers will recall that Ryan was previously chief policy officer for the Brave web browser, itself a less-intrusive product built on the Chromium engine powering Google’s Chrome browser. That didn’t stop him firing GDPR complaints at Ireland’s data cops and the EU Commission. Those complaints, among many others, were about Google’s violations of GDPR.

This was a swipe at Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC). The Emerald Island is the corporate European home for most US Big Tech companies, for tax purposes, and therefore local enforcement of the bloc-wide regulation applies. This is perhaps less than cutting-edge in Ireland: in December the DPC fined Twitter around three hours’ worth of 2019 profits for GDPR breaches.

Ryan has proposed an alternative to RTB so advertisers’ wallets don’t shrink (heaven forfend!): last year he pointed to the Dutch state broadcaster NPO, which saw revenues rise when it ditched targeted ad-tracking in favour of contextual advertising. So far none of the Big Tech firms have seen fit to adopt the tech, though. ®