ICO pauses RTB probe for fear of putting 'undue pressure' on adtech players

UK data watchdog says investigation will start again 'when time is right'.

Data breaches: is ICO taking middle-of-the-road approach to enforcement?
Data breaches: is ICO taking middle-of-the-road approach to enforcement?

The UK’s data watchdog has paused its months-long investigation into real-time bidding and the adtech industry.

In a statement released this afternoon (Thursday), the Information Commissioner’s Office indicated that it believes the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic means it is no longer the right time to investigate.

Last summer, the ICO launched the inquiry into widespread privacy breaches that are endemic in the processing of data using RTB. 

Campaigners have grown increasingly frustrated in recent months with the ICO’s perceived inaction over policing the data breaches, which violate the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Johnny Ryan, chief policy and industry relations officer at Brave, the anti-ad-tracking browser, first contacted the ICO in January 2018 about the RTB data breach and began formal GDPR complaints in September that year. 

Reacting to today’s decision, Ryan said: "Every day, RTB leaks the browsing habits of every internet user to countless companies. Now, over two years since I first blew the whistle to it, the ICO is refusing to use its powers to end the biggest data breach that UK citizens have ever experienced.

"The ICO is – by far – the most expensive GDPR enforcer to operate in all of Europe. Its budget doubled between 2018, from €30m to €61m. Despite this, the ICO does not seem to be fit for purpose. Even though illegality is not in dispute, the ICO is unable, or unwilling, to act against egregious GDPR online infringements.

"Note that the ICO has 680 staff, but only 3% of this (21 people) are dedicated to tech issues (as we discovered using a freedom of information request). It appears to be in urgent need of a wholesale reform in order to do its job, which is to protect privacy and data in the UK."

The ICO’s statement was also sent via email to industry stakeholders. In the note, its executive director for technology and innovation, Simon McDougall, said: "The ICO recently set out its regulatory approach during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we spoke about reassessing our priorities and resources.

"Taking this into account, we have made the decision to pause our investigation into real-time bidding and the adtech industry.

"It is not our intention to put undue pressure on any industry at this time, but our concerns about adtech remain and we aim to restart our work in the coming months, when the time is right."