Google to go further on ads transparency and data access for researchers as EU digital rulebook reboot kicks in

Google has said it will increase how much information it provides about ads targeted at users in the European Union. It is also expanding data access to third party researchers studying systemic content risks in the region. The actions are among a number of steps it’s announcing today which it says are aimed at complying with the bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA).

A DSA compliance deadline for larger platforms with more than 45 million regional users — 19 of which the EU designated back in April — kicks in on Friday (August 25).

Ahead of that deadline we’ve seen a string of announcements from other tech giants setting out how they intend to respond to the bloc’s law, including from TikTok, Meta and Snap.

Google has now added its 2 (Euro) cents — and, as with other platform giants, it’s spinning the measures as an expansion of existing efforts, rather than a step-change. But there’s no doubt all the platforms are being forced to be more open than they were, with the threat of major fines (of up to 6% of global annual turnover) for violating the pan-EU regime.

Tech giants could choose to stop operating in the region if they don’t like the EU’s new rules. And Amazon and Zalando are challenging their designations as VLOPs in court. But outright abandoning a market of circa 450 million consumers is not the sort of decision that would fly in the average C-suite. Even if all eyes will be on what Twitter/X’s erratic owner Elon Musk will do.

The social media platform has also been designated a VLOP — but, since Musk took over Twitter (now X), it’s been moving in the polar opposite direction to DSA compliance. Hence the Commission warning for months that the platform faces huge work if it’s to avoid breaching the DSA.

The other tech giants on the VLOP/VLOSE list can at least be confident they haven’t painted such a massive Musk-shaped target on their backs when it comes to playing by EU rules. Although they should expect the detail of their claimed compliance to be scrutinized equally carefully by European Commission regulators. Just, maybe, with better odds on not being first in line for enforcement.

“We will be expanding the Ads Transparency Center, a global searchable repository of advertisers across all our platforms, to meet specific DSA provisions and providing additional information on targeting for ads served in the European Union,” writes Google in a blog post entitled “complying with the Digital Services Act”. “These steps build on our many years of work to expand the transparency of online ads.”

While on data access for researchers, the adtech giant adds: “Building on our prior efforts to help advance public understanding of our services, we will increase data access for researchers looking to understand more about how Google Search, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Play and Shopping work in practice, and conducting research related to understanding systemic content risks in the EU.”

Google also claims its approach to DSA compliance includes steps to boost transparency around its content moderation decisions; provide users with different ways to contact it; and update its reporting and appeals processes to include “specified types of information and context about our decisions”.

It also says it’s rolled out a new Transparency Center which it says will present information about its policies on a product-by-product basis, as well as enabling people to find its reporting and appeals tools; access the Transparency Reports; and learn more about its policy development process.

In another DSA measure, Google is expanding the scope of Transparency Reports — saying the reports will now include information about how it handles content moderation across more of its services, including Google Search, Google Play, Google Maps and Shopping.

The tech giant’s blog post affirms that it will be assessing risks in areas such as illegal content dissemination, fundamental rights, public health and civic discourse, and providing reports to EU regulators and independent auditors, as the DSA demands.

“We are committed to assessing risks related to our largest online platforms and our search engine in line with DSA requirements,” it writes on that, noting that as well as reporting on these risks to the EU and independent auditors it will publish a public summary of the assessments “at a later date”. So it will be interesting to see how quickly those assessments make it into the public domain (and how much detail Google’s summaries contain). 

The DSA will eventually apply to a far wider range of digital platforms and services, with a general deadline for compliance falling early neat year. But the regulation puts extra obligations (and an tighter compliance timeline) on so-called very large online platforms (VLOPs) and very large online search engines (VLOSE).

These additional requirements are aimed at driving transparency and accountability around platforms’ use of AI and other recommender algorithms, with mandates they give users more choice over how algorithms shape the content they see; proactively address AI-driven risks on their services; and give up data to independent researchers so they can study the societal impacts of algorithmic content-shaping systems.

The EU is not intending to rely solely on independent researchers to do the leg work of interrogating algorithmic effects; last year it opened a new AI research hub in Seville, Spain which will support the Commission’s oversight of Big Tech. But the bloc also wants the regulation to fire up platform research and algorithmic auditing across the region — to make Europe a world leader in interrogating the impacts of AIs.

Another area which is regulated by the DSA is VLOPs’/VLOSEs’ recommender systems that are powered by profiling users (aka content “personalization”, as platforms prefer to dub it). They must offer users a way to opt out of such tracking — meaning users in the EU should be able to receive content feeds or search results that are non-personalized/not based on the platform analyzing their activity to predict what might engage them the most.

Google’s blog post does not mention any measures it’s taking to comply with this aspect of the DSA so we’ve reached out to the company with questions. Most likely this is because it does already offer a way for users to turn off “personalized” search results if you dig into the Google settings. Update: YouTube also recently announced it was disabling watch recommendations for users who have watch history turned off.

The pan-EU regulation also puts some limits on the use of tracking and profiling for targeting advertising — with a total prohibition on tracking minors to microtarget them with ads; and a ban on the use of sensitive personal data for ad targeting.

Google does not mention the latter requirement — so we’ve asked how it intends to comply with that. Update: Google says it has a long standing policy which it claims prohibits advertisers from using sensitive interest categories, including sexual interests, race and religion, to target ads to users.

On minors, its blog post highlights a decision it took two years ago when it said it would block personalized advertising (“based on the age, gender, or interests”) to anyone under age 18. “The DSA will require other providers to take similar approaches,” it goes on to suggest.

Google does not name any rivals in relation to that suggestion but the likes of Meta and Snap do appear to be continuing to try to target minors with some of the parameters Google claims it does not use — such as age and location (in the case of Meta); and age, location and language settings (Snap).

So it will be also be interesting to see whether EU regulators pick up on discrepancies in how platforms are framing what is and isn’t personalization/profiling in an ad-targeting context. (Snap, for instance, talks about language settings, age and location being “basic essential information” — but, on age, at least, Google seems to be claiming otherwise.) 

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