Seven tough questions publishers should be asking Google on GDPR

On Thursday May 24, four influential publisher industry groups are due to sit down with Google in four of its offices in the US and in London (if the meetings go ahead). The subject of those discussions? GDPR, and Google’s controversial approach to it. [UPDATE June 8, Google announces policy change to allow more than 12 vendors in publishers’ consent list].

There’s been much written about the timing with which the tech giant has chosen to reveal its strategy (last minute) and what it expects of publishers (a lot). In an open letter to Google, the industry groups explained their frustration.

At Quantcast, we’ve been an ally to marketers and publishers since we were founded in 2006. To this day, we offer our core Quantcast Measure product for free, giving website owners audience insights that help them better curate and monetize their content.

It’s based on our experience, gathered over more than a decade, that we can see real risks from the approach Google is taking to GDPR. These risks go beyond just publishers. These are risks for consumers as well. As the pressure on publisher business models increases, the quality news we take for granted may vanish. Given Google’s extraordinary influence on the advertising market and leverage over publishers, it’s critical to question everything and for these decisions not to go unchecked.

So, ahead of Thursday’s meetings, we’ve put together a list of questions that every publisher should be asking Google when it comes to GDPR.

  • Why limit the business model choices of publishers?
    Under its proposed system, Google has limited the number of technical vendors publishers can work with to 12 (11, since Google is included by default). This artificially limits the broad spectrum of vendors and services – ranging from traffic measurement and content personalization – that publishers need in order to satisfy the demands of today’s advertisers. As a result, their ability to monetise their content and audiences is reduced.
  • Will fewer choices for publishers restrict innovation? 
    The limits described above channel power and control to a small number of larger, more well-known organisations, threatening competition and innovation. Online publishing has evolved dramatically over the past decade, driven by risk-takers and entrepreneurs. This has enabled publishers to adapt and even thrive in the digital age. Many of these founders likely aspire to have the same impact as Larry Page and Sergey Brin have, yet Google is threatening this innovation with their decisions. Any limits on innovation in publishing will eventually harm consumers as the variety of news outlets inevitably shrinks.
  • Why not collaborate with the rest of the industry on the IAB Europe’s open-source solution?
    The IAB Europe has successfully pulled together a cross-section of the advertising and publishing industries to define an independent standard that would make it easier for everyone to obtain, manage, and transmit consumer consent under GDPR. The IAB Europe’s Transparency & Consent Framework is the result; an open-source solution that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers. While Google has participated in that effort, it has chosen to launch its own solution that doesn’t work with the rest of the industry. Google recently said it “wants to be part of the framework” but so far hasn’t committed to a specific timeline, and time is running out. Uncertainty, especially this close to the deadline, undermines the wider industry.
  • Why are certain services being withheld from publishers?
    The list of more than 270 vendors registered with the IAB Framework currently excludes Google or any of its services – such as DoubleClick – that many in the ecosystem rely on. By withholding its services from the IAB’s open consent solution, Google is using its market dominance to force customers to adopt its proprietary GDPR solution.
  • Why aren’t there more meetings in Europe?
    GDPR is an EU law, yet three of the four scheduled meetings are in the US. Only engaging the four publisher groups that were signatories to the open letter addressed to Google’s CEO risks looking like a PR opportunity, rather than an attempt at genuine engagement.
  • Is this truly the best solution from one of the world’s leading technology companies?
    Google is home to one of the largest pools of technical talent and creative minds ever assembled. Yet the options on offer for publishers boil down to using Google’s restrictive consent mechanism or finding the engineering resources and budget to create a solution that works with Google’s exacting requirements. In contrast, the IAB Framework currently includes 270 vendors and is open-source (and anyone can participate).
  • Is this what “don’t be evil” means?
    Google is dictating that a consumer’s consent is the only valid circumstance in which data can be used for online advertising, even though GDPR allows for other legal bases. In doing so, Google is capitalising on its direct relationship with consumers at the expense of hundreds and thousands of valuable companies in the industry. These companies, which employ tens of thousands of people, don’t have a direct relationship with the consumer, but are essential in delivering the ads that fund publishers. This disproportionate stance only serves to benefit Google, as it will default to using its own systems to deliver ads where consent isn’t present.

It’s questionable whether Larry Page and Sergey Brin would have been able to get Google off the ground if they were faced with such a dominant competitor which held so much power over how the market operated in so many different ways. It is concerning that this might be the example that Sundar Pichai wants to give to the entrepreneurs of today.

There are plenty of reasons to admire Google as an organisation. There’s no arguing that it’s had a positive impact on our world in many ways. On this occasion, however, they’ve got it wrong. I’d encourage publishers to hold them to account if they are to avoid facing insurmountable challenges when it comes to building sustainable businesses now and in the future.

Somer Simpson is a former journalist and publisher and head of product management at Quantcast

Quantcast has launched Quantcast Choice, the first widely available implementation of the IAB Framework. Available for free, it enables publishers and advertisers to get their website GDPR-ready in minutes.