Google seeks to allay privacy fears over DoubleClick merger

The planned merger between Google and the leading provider of ad-serving tools, DoubleClick, will not involve the creation of a single database with consumer-related information, said Google’s Privacy Counsel, Peter Fleischer, in a move aimed to allay growing privacy concerns in Europe.

During a hearing in the European Parliament on 19 January, Fleischer underlined that Google’s interest in buying DoubleClick merely reflects its desire to enter the third-party ad-serving market. 

The takeover will not involve merging the two companies’ databases, primarily because “DoubleClick does not own its customers’ data”, Fleischer added. 

The online ad company “can only use the data it processes from serving ads to provide aggregate reporting. The data is owned by the publishers or advertisers that DoubleClick works for”, explained Fleischer, adding that “DoubleClick customers would be very displeased if one tried to undo their contractual relationships by sharing information between advertisers”. 

Many in Brussels are pushing for the case to be read as a matter of privacy and security instead of merely a competition issue. However, the Commission lacks the authority to approach the topic from this perspective, as privacy protection is a national competence (see EURACTIV 14/01/08). 

Regardless of the outcome of the merger, Google’s activities are being increasingly questioned in Europe, with concerns mainly centred on the collection of personal data without the explicit consent or even the awareness of consumers. 

Specifically, Google’s practice of providing targeted advertising after having collected personal data on users – such as queries carried out on its search engine and IP addresses or by scanning the content of emails, such as those of its own Gmail users, is increasingly under attack. 

In response, Google officials have replied that “no human being other than the user ever reads the messages sent or received on Gmail. It is simply a computer matching up key words in people’s emails with targeted ads”. 

Currently, the dossier is in the hands of DG Competition and is under examination concerning potential violations of antitrust rules in the online advertising intermediary market. 

Ben Novick, Google's Communication and Public Affairs representative in London, told EURACTIV that in awaiting the Commission's opinion, the company's officials have stressed that "every decision has to be applied to the whole industry" and not just this specific case. 

MEPs and consumer representatives brought together by the hearing agreed that the average citizen has a poor understanding of privacy issues and the way their data is used on the Internet. 

"The majority of people think that what it is done on the Internet is much more private than it actually is", a BEUC representative told the hearing.

"The requirements on transparency on the collection/processing of personal data exist. There is no new territory here, only a faster technology", reads the position paper issued for the conference by FEDMA, the Federation of European Direct & Interactive Marketing. At the same time, the paper acknowledges that "there is always more that can be done to ensure that consumers know where to find information about their rights and how their data may be used".

Last December, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the top US anti-trust authority, gave the green light to the merger between Google and DoubleClick, basing its decision solely on competition issues. 

The merger between Google, which dominates the text-based internet advertising market, and DoubleClick, the world leader in graphic online adverts, was negotiated in spring 2007

The FTC's decision underlined its lack of authority to add conditions to the merger that do not relate to antitrust and revealed that imposing limits upon just one company based on privacy issues could be considered detrimental to competition. 

Google notified the European Commission of the takeover in September 2007. The EU executive decided to open an in-depth investigation into the merger in November.

  • 2 April 2008: European Commission to decide whether or not to authorise the merger. 

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