Irish rights group urges US regulator to change tracking rules for online ads

Irish Council for Civil Liberties tells Federal Trade Commission that ‘real-time bidding’ internet advertising exposes consumers to ‘significant injury’

A key Irish human rights body has asked the US Federal Trade Commission to curb real-time bidding, a type of online advertising, claiming it exposes people to “significant injury”.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has lodged a submission to the US competition and consumer regulator on behalf of 76 civil society organisations on both sides of the Atlantic hoping to encourage the FTC to change tracking rules on targeted online advertising.

The regulator is carrying out a new in-depth rule-making process intended to crack down on commercial surveillance of internet users and lax data security practices.

Real-time bidding is the buying and selling of online advert views through real-time actions that take place through advert exchanges in the time it takes a user to load a webpage.


The process creates billions of records for the data broker industry.

The ICCL told the FTC that every US internet user has their user data tracked and broadcast twice for every minute they are online. Americans are exposed 107 trillion times a year by the real-time bidding industry in what it calls “the biggest data breach ever”, it has told the regulator.

Long-time data protection campaigner Dr Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the ICCL who authored the 22-page submission to the FTC, has asked the US watchdog to define real-time bidding as “an unfair and deceptive practice”.

“Surveillance-based advertising hurts the internet and exposes us all to discrimination, manipulation and to private and transat surveillance. We urge the FTC to act to protect people,” said Dr Ryan.

ICCL said the ubiquity of the bidding system and frequency of broadcasts make it “prevalent and unavoidable” and that the massive volume and sensitivity of the data “expose people to significant injury”.

Dr Ryan calls the “false ‘consent’ and disclosure pop-ups” for the bidding process “a deception on an industrial scale”.

The group provides examples in the submission of how real-time bidding poses significant risks, including predatory profiling of a suicidal gambling addict, data being made available to buy about victims of sexual abuse and criminal exploitation of tracking-based advertising systems.

The submission was made by the ICCL, representing the Open Markets Institute, the US-based non-profit group that fights threats to democracy and individual liberties, and the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a forum of 75 US and EU groups seeking better protection for consumers.

Dr Ryan took a High Court action this year against the Data Protection Commission, the State watchdog, over its alleged failure to investigate a 2018 complaint he made about how internet giant Google and digital marketing association IAB Europe process personal data.

The DPC has denied that it has delayed processing the complaint. Earlier this year, Google was added as a notice party to Dr Ryan’s judicial review proceedings against the regulator.

The DPC opened an investigation into Google in 2019. The company has said that authorised buyers using its ad systems are subject to stringent policies and standards.

The ICCL has also taken court actions against the real-time bidding industry in Germany, Belgium and California.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times