Tech & Rights

Protecting Online Privacy – Why Every Voice Matters

The online advertising industry systematically violates users’ privacy. Liberties has launched a petition pushing for changes — here’s our explainer about the problem and what we’re doing about it.​

by Eva Simon

When privacy is there for everyone to see

When people go online, they normally see different advertisements. Those ads are sometimes tailored to some very particular and personal interests. So how do the advertisers know what kind of medication someone might be looking for?

Through cookies. That is how companies collect information about online behavior. If they have enough data, they are able to infer a number of very personal details about people. Hobbies. Health concerns. Religion. Sexual interests. Political preferences. And much more.

In order to find the best paying advertiser, users’ profiles are being broadcast to thousands of companies. Based on those profiles, companies size people up and decide in milliseconds who is a potential customer. If they detect good candidates, they bid for the right to show those people an ad. The one that offers the most gets to advertise to a specific group of people. This is called real-time bidding, or RTB.

The real problem with real-time bidding

Sometimes the advertisements are a good fit, and sometimes they are not. But this is not the point, even if it does make holiday shopping easier sometimes. The problem is that the companies participating in the online advertising industry have access to personal data with no consent. The problem is that users have no control over what happens to their data that was broadcasted into the ether.

Those companies that receive data don’t only collect and mine, but also misuse it. Do you remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? (If you want to refresh your memory, you might want to check out the 'The Great Hack'.) Something similar may happen any day with the help of the data leaking from the real-time bidding system.

Your data is your business. And you can protect it.

We at Liberties know that the way real-time bidding works breaches the EU's data protection law, the GDPR. So we decided to ask Google and IAB Europe, the European-level association for the digital marketing and advertising ecosystem, to stop breaching our privacy. You should too. Your data is your business.

Liberties has launched a petition (link) to ask to change the standards of the behavioral advertising industry. In this petition we, and the privacy defenders signing the petition, ask the standard-setters of the online advertising industry to respect users' privacy and develop a data protection-friendly solution for online advertising.

Google and IAB Europe need to change their standards, limit the use of personal data, and make sure that personal data is not leaked to potential perpetrators.

Every voice matters. Sign the petition and protect your privacy.


This is not the first action against RTB. Back in June 2019, Liberties and its partners filed a series of complaints with 13 national data protection offices in 9 countries, asking them to launch investigations into the behavioral advertising industry. There are ongoing procedures in 16 EU member states: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and the UK. Most of them referred their cases to the Irish Data Protection Commission, which launched a statutory inquiry against Google Ireland. The UK Information Commissioner's Office is also active in the field. It published an interim report about AdTech and real-time bidding.

For more information about this matter, please visit Liberties’ campaign page.

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