GDPR Privacy Rules: The Other Shoe Drops
Four years after GDPR was implemented, we are seeing the pillars of the internet business destroyed. Given two new EU decisions affecting the practical management of data, all companies collecting consumer data in the EU are re-evaluating their business models and will soon be considering wholesale changes.
On one hand, the GDPR is creating the world its drafters intended – a world where personal data is less of a commodity exploited and traded by business. On the other hand, GDPR enforcement has taken the form of a wrecking ball, leading to data localization in Europe and substitution of government meddling for consumer choice.
For years we have watched the EU courts and enforcement agencies apply GDPR text to real-life cases, wondering if the legal application would be more of a nip and tuck operation on ecommerce or something more bloody and brutal. In 2022, we received our answer, and the bodies are dropping.
In January Austrian courts decided that companies can’t use Google Analytics to study their own site’s web traffic. The same conclusion was reached last week by French regulators. While Google doesn’t announce statistics about product usage, website tracker BuiltWith published that 29.3 million websites use Google Analytics, including 69.5 percent of Quantcast’s Top 10,000 sites, and that is more than ten times the next most popular option. So vast numbers of companies operating in Europe will need to change their platform analytics provider – if the Euro-crats will allow them to use site analytics at all.
But these decisions were not based on the functionality of Google Analytics, a tool that does not even capture personally identifiable information – no names, no home or office address, no phone numbers. Instead, these decisions that will harm thousands of businesses were a result of the Schrems II decision, finding fault in the transfer of this non-identifiable data to a company based in the United States. The problem here for European decision-makers is that US law enforcement may have access to this data if courts allow them. I have written before about this illogical conclusion and won’t restate the many arguments here, other than to say that EU law enforcement behaves the same way.
The effects of this decision will be felt far beyond the huge customer base of Google Analytics. The logic of this decision effectively means that companies collecting data from EU citizens can no longer use US-based cloud services like Amazon Web Services, IBM, Google, Oracle or Microsoft. I would anticipate that huge cloud player Alibaba Cloud could suffer the same proscription if Europe’s privacy panjandrums decide that China’s privacy protection is as threatening as the US.
The Austrians held that all the sophisticated measures taken by Google to encrypt analytic data meant nothing, because if Google could decrypt it, so could the US government. By this logic, no US cloud provider – the world’s primary business data support network – could “safely” hold EU data. Which means that the Euro-crats are preparing to fine any EU company that uses a US cloud provider. Max Schrems saw this decision in stark terms, stating, “The bottom line is: Companies can’t use US cloud services in Europe anymore.”
This decision will ultimately support the Euro-crats' goal of data localization as companies try to organize local storage/processing solutions to avoid fines. Readers of this blog have seen coverage of the EU’s tilt toward data localization (for example, here and here) and away from the open internet that European politicians once held as the ideal. The Euro-crats are taking serious steps toward forcing localized data processing and cutting US businesses out of the ecommerce business ecosystem. The Google Analytics decision is likely to be seen as a tipping point in years to come.
In a second major practical online privacy decision, earlier this month the Belgian Data Protection Authority ruled that the Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe’s Transparency and Consent Framework (TCF), a widely-used technical standard built for publishers, advertisers, and technology vendors to obtain user consent for data processing, does not comply with the GDPR. The TCF allows users to accept or reject cookie-based advertising, relieving websites of the need to create their own expensive technical solutions, and creating a consistent experience for consumers. Now the TCF is considered per-se illegal under EU privacy rules, casting thousands of businesses to search for or design their own alternatives, and removing online choices for European residents.
The Belgian privacy authority reached this conclusion by holding that the Interactive Advertising Bureau was a “controller” of all the data managed under its proposed framework. As stated by the Center for Data Innovation, this decision implies “that any good-faith effort to implement a common data protection protocol by an umbrella organization that wants to uphold GDPR makes said organization liable for the data processing that takes place under this protocol.” No industry group will want to put itself in this position, leaving businesses to their own devices and making ecommerce data collection much less consistent and much more expensive – even if that data collection is necessary to fulfill the requests of consumers.
For years companies thought that informed consumer consent would be a way to personalize messaging and keep consumer costs low online, but the EU has thrown all online consent regimes into question. EU regulators have effectively decided that people can’t make their own decisions about allowing data to be collected. If TCF – the consent system used by 80% of the European internet and a system designed specifically to meet the demands of the GDPR – is now illegal, then, for a second time in a month, all online consumer commerce is thrown into confusion. Thousands were operating websites with TCF and Google Analytics, believing they were following the letter of the law. That confidence has been smashed.
We are finally seeing the practical effects of the GDPR beyond its simple utility for fining US tech companies. Those effects are leading to a closed-border internet around Europe and a costlier, less customizable internet for EU citizens. The EU is clearly harming businesses around the world and making its internet a more cramped place. I have trouble seeing the logic and benefit of these decisions, but the GDPR was written to shake the system, and privacy benefits may emerge.