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International > Use of personal data by the Google search engine

Use of personal data by the Google search engine.                                          Share

The article below is the first part of a study of the use of your personal data by the Google search engine. The second part examines whether VAT (tax) may be due on your search activity when Google uses your personal data for the benefit of its advertising services.

Both articles are posted in addition to a series of articles about the activities of Google in the travel industry. In our Blog, you find a review of all our articles, including those about the best beaches in the word and the best way to book a cheap international air ticket.

1. Google: one company, two business activities.

When you enter a search query into Google, you get pages that include two kinds of information:

a) On one hand, the answer to your query, which is obviously the reason why you use the search engine. These results are produced by complex algorithms attempting through a number of criteria to identify, among the web pages indexed by the search engine, what pages are likely to provide you with the most relevant answer to your question. Therefore, they are the result of a permanent work of exploration and indexation of web pages as well as that of algorithms that try case-by-case to determine what pages are specific to your query and how they are to be ranked.

For several years, in a growing amount of cases, instead of forwarding you to the most relevant pages, Google has tried to give you directly a piece of information that is supposed to respond (correctly or not) to your query. This is an amalgam of functions: under the guise of a search engine that indexes the content of other web sites, Google supplants them.

Several complaints have been filed with the European Commission (which is in charge of competition in the European Union) because either Google promotes its own services (they are more and more numerous) in the search results or it uses for its own benefit the content of sites, even when the latter is protected by copyright.

According to Google terms of service, whenever you use the search engine of Google Inc. or any other service of the company, you agree that Google uses your personal data, including for advertising purposes.

b) On the other hand, ads that Google shows you on its own initiative. These advertisements ("AdWords") result in no way of a search process. At Google, the displayed ads are simply those that are likely to be the most profitable for the company among those proposed by the advertisers.

In other words, they meet two criteria: the highest price offered by advertisers (Google ads are sold by auction) and the highest probability the advertisement may be clicked by the user (the advertisement is indeed to be paid whenever a user clicks it: CPC, cost-per-click). The displayed advertisements are thus the most expensive ads that are the most likely to be actually paid to Google.

Ads appear at the top, at the side and/or at the bottom of the search results pages. The "premium AdWords" i.e. the advertisements that are posted at the top of the organic search results (in fact, instead of them since the organic search results are relegated below the fold) have various advantages and are significantly more profitable for Google (higher unit cost and click rates).

In addition, Google has set up several price comparators (hotels, air tickets, and more) and Google Shopping which actually are just staging of ads. They also stand above the organic search results.

Ads by Google are not only displayed in the search engine and many other services from Google, but also completely outside of the Google web site, in various applications for mobile and in countless other web sites ("adsense" performed since 2003) which do not belong to Google group.

These sites, these mobile phone apps as well as services such as YouTube, Gmail and Blogger form what Google names its "Display network" while its 'Search network' is made up of Google search results pages, Google maps and shopping, and AOL search results pages.

In the display network, advertisers can choose appealing ad formats (text ads, image ads, interactive ads, and video aps), place ads on websites that are relevant to what they are selling, and show them to the people that are likely to be the most interested. Furthermore, CPM (cost-per-thousand impressions) campaigns are allowed in the display network. In this case, ads are to be paid whenever they are displayed; no click of the user is required.

When you search for a product, besides AdWords which are primarily text-based ads, Google offers another ad format: against payment by the merchant (before 2012, it was free), Google Shopping displays an image and the price of the product, the name of the merchant, and a direct link to the page dedicated to the product on the merchant site. These advertisements, called Product Listing Ads (PLAs), are experiencing a very strong growth. These ads cost usually more than AdWords.

As stated hereinafter more in detail, all these ads also collect information on your behavior.

In short, Google operates two completely different jobs, a search engine and an advertising agency. Since the acquisition of the giant advertising company DoubleClick for $ 3.1 billion in 2008, Google is one of the largest agencies in the advertising industry in the world.

Both Google search engine and Google advertisements (including those displayed in other sites and mobile applications) collect personal data from the users. These data are used in order to maximize the profitability of advertisements regardless of where and when they are displayed.

2. Data which are collected and used by Google.

Since search engines have become a bit more transparent about their privacy policy due to privacy laws for a few years, we may have an overview of the personal data that search engines collect and how they use them. At Google, this information is shown in its "Privacy policy" which is part of its "Terms of service".

Google states the personal data it collects without specifying those collected by each of its services, blending technical data and commercially used data. As for its search engine, the collected data include those provided by the user as well as various other pieces of information that Google collects on its own.

The collected data include the content of your query, the details of your device, your location, the server log files, and many other pieces of information about the services that you use and how you use them, among others, your search preferences, the date and time of your query, the operating system and the browser configuration you use, the unique identifier of your device, mobile network information (including your phone number), your IP address, your geographical location (your exact location and thus your region and country), your language, your action on content and displayed ads, the watched YouTube videos, the ads you could see or not (because you did not scroll the page), and more.

If you have a Google account (Gmail, Google+, Google Webmaster), the collected information also includes details such as your name, age, email address and phone number.

These various data are collected online and can thus be used easily and intensively.

-- Google stores all these personal data.
-- Google associates personal information collected by one service with information from other Google services: "We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services" (1).
-- Google maintains the history of your search, browsing, and mobile apps activity when you're signed into your Google Account (Gmail or another one) or, otherwise, by putting cookies (a unique number identification) or another identifier on your device. Such cookies have been used since 2009.
-- Google uses that history individually during a long period of time and then anonymously. Google removes "part of the IP address (after 9 months) and cookie information (after 18 months). If you have web & app activity enabled, this data may also be stored in your Google account until you delete the record of your search" (2).
-- If you use an Android smartphone, Google tracks your location too. If you have enabled the related setting, you have access to your location history for 6 years. In Google maps, you may visualize and edit the timeline of the places you have been and the itineraries you have followed. 

All these coherent personal data make it possible to build up relatively accurate profiles of Google's users. They are used by both the search engine of Google and its advertising business.

Putting these coherent personal data into the hands of the advertising services of Google enables them to offer customized ads to users for Google's maximum profitability. Aggregated, but still split according to various criteria, these personal data are passed on to numerous other operators, particularly to advertisers. Among other things, data about your interests, when and where you express them, your language, and the device you used are available to advertisers in such a way.

The customized ads appear not only immediately with the results of your query, but also later when you use other search services (such as Google Maps, Google Shopping, and associated engines), other Google services (Gmail, YouTube videos, Blogger, ...) and, last but not least, completely out of the Google site when you use applications for mobile and when you visit countless other websites.

The advertising services of Google are among the best operators which excel in tracking your behavior in the web and in setting up monitoring systems for the benefit of advertisers. Besides different cookies used by the search engine, Google's advertising services place cookies on your device "to make advertising more engaging to users and more valuable to publishers and advertisers. Some common applications of cookies are to select advertising based on what’s relevant to a user; to improve reporting on campaign performance; and to avoid showing ads the user has already seen"(3).

Among other things, Google advertising services use "cookies to remember your most recent searches, your previous interactions with an advertiser’s ads or search results, and your visits to an advertiser’s website" (4). Google ads use similar advertising cookies on non-Google sites. Such cookies are called third-party cookies (as opposed to first-party cookies) because they are not set the visited site, but by Google ads. All of them again help Google to show you customized ads.

Google advertising services also use "conversion cookies whose main purpose is to help advertisers determine how many times people who click on their ads end up purchasing their products....Conversion cookie data may also be used in combination with your Google account to link conversion events across different devices you use." (5).

In particular, Google uses the so-called remarketing technique that helps advertisers reach people who have recently visited their website without buying anything. The advertiser can show these people ads that are tailored to them so that they are spurred on to complete the deal with the advertiser later on when they browse the web, when they use mobile apps, or when they search on Google.
When your device (e.g. mobile devices) does not accept the cookie technology, Google uses other identifiers.

Advertisers receive various tools and reports that allow them to observe how you interact with ads. In addition, by combining their AdWords account with their Google Analytics account (a web analytics service that tracks and reports website traffic: the tool is offered by Google and used by countless sites), advertisers can get a full analysis of your behavior on their site until any conversion (purchase or another desired action).

Google continually provides new facilities to advertisers. Since 2015, in the USA, it enables them to watch relations between clicks on sponsored links and store visits by tracking IOS and Android users who have "location history" on Google Maps turned on.
So, thanks to the use of personal data and because these data can be directly exploited electronically, the Google advertising network can offer customized ads, the return of which can be determined rather accurately and easily. It therefore can provide advertisers with more attractive services than many other media.

Even if advertisers are not interested in such ads, several factors related to the dominant position of the Google search engine still spur them to purchase Google ads.

For example, since Google puts ads above organic search results and it allows advertisers to buy ads on queries related to the - yet duly protected - brand name of a competitor (this has been accepted by the Court of Justice of the European Union since 2010), this competitor will buy AdWords just in order to prevent other advertisers from taking advantage of its own brand name and being shown above the fold in Google search results pages regarding that brand name. Therefore, even if the company that owns the brand name (logically) appears in the very first places of these organic search results, it is spurred to buy AdWords for that reason.

In a web page, the portion above the fold is the first section that the user sees in the browser window. It is also the only one if the user refrains from scrolling. It plays a major role in web marketing since it is the most visible section and it gets the majority of users' clicks.


4. Opt-out.

Google gives you some opportunities to limit the exploitation of your personal data. Overall, they are little-known, rarely 100% effective and rather unstable.

-- In Google site, the form "Settings for Google ads" allows you either to add personal data (gender, age, and more if they are not already known by Google or if you want to update them) or, on the contrary, to opt out of interest-based ads. 

When you opt out of interest-based ads, you’ll still see ads but they may not be related to factors such as your interests, previous visits to other websites, or demographic details. Instead, they'll be based on factors such as the content of the page, your general location, or your recent searches. Opting out is to be made in both sides of the Google network: on the one hand, the search network and on the other hand the display network.

If you remove cookies from your PC, this will unfortunately enable again interest-based ads so that one may doubt that once chosen, this opt-out facility remains effective a long time. Only a relatively small amount of users are likely to know, use and permanently maintain such an opt-out.

-- Your location: Google gives you the opportunity to edit your location. You may not remove any reference to your location. Users' location is an essential information for web marketing. Even when users' location is of little importance as for queries (e.g. advanced search about a foreign country), it remains a valuable information for advertisers.

-- Search history (18 months when based on cookies, as stated above): you have the option to delete your search history. This option is maybe the least unknown one since the webmasters are supposed to know it and also because Google allows you as from 2015 to download this history (i.e. to export a copy of the history).

On a personal computer, opting out of your search history is not always very stable. Moreover, such opting out obviously does not work if you're signed into your Google account that stores the history of your search activity as long as you keep it. When you sign up for a Google Account, search history is automatically enabled.

In addition, "your searches and sites you visit may also be stored in your browser or the Google Toolbar" (6). In Chrome (the browser produced by Google), your web history is kept 90 days.

Despite the fact that your search history has been disabled, ads may still remain customized to your previous activity, in particular "recent searches related to your current search,..., websites you’ve visited that belong to businesses that advertise with Google, non-personally identifying information in your Google account (like your age and gender), previous interactions with Google’s ads, advertising services, or search results"(7). .

It is commonly accepted that your location (particularly your location history) and your web history are two essential personal features as for web marketing.

On the other hand, the press reported in 2013 that Google made a payment to Adblock Plus and that Google AdWords have been since then included in the list of ads which are permitted by default by this software that filters out intrusive advertisements on your device. The information was confirmed again in 2015. It was then reported that Microsoft and Amazon have taken the same action.

We have to be very critical of such ads-filtering tools that make exceptions tailored in favor of powerful donors while Google ads often occupy most of the area above the fold in search results pages. Adblock, another ads-filtering tool, also includes Google AdWords in its list of permitted advertisements. As for Adblock Edge, a version of Adblock Plus which does not maintain such a white list, it is discontinued on June 2015.

In the current situation, opting out of interest-based ads via the Google form or using an ads-filtering tool does not prevent Google from processing (storage, aggregation, history) your personal data and probably, including them in statistics provided to potential advertisers.

 5. Transfer of personal data to the United States.

In Europe, effective from 1998, the Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data allows the transfer of such data to other countries provided that they actually provide a level of protection substantially equivalent to the European Union. Transfers of such data to a dozen countries including for example Switzerland and Canada are currently allowed.

In the USA, personal data are exploited for commercial purposes to a very large extent. They do not benefit from a protection equivalent to that in force in the European Union. However, in 2000, the European Commission concluded with the United States the "Safe Harbor" agreement that considers through the adherence to a code of conduct that American companies (including Google, Facebook, and about 4,500 other companies) comply with the Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data and therefore they may transfer these data from Europe to the United States.

On October 6, 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) declared the Safe Harbor agreement invalid. The ruling of the Court stemmed from a complaint filed by an Austrian student, Max Schrems, against the European headquarters of the social network Facebook in Ireland that transferred his personal data to the United States. The judgment isn't really a surprise after the revelations of Edward Snowden in June 2013 about the PRISM electronic data mining program and massive spying on citizens by the NSA with the collaboration of firms such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and others.

Then, the case against Facebook is to be tried by the Irish Court without relying on the Safe Harbor agreement. Similar complaints may be submitted to national courts in the same conditions, which would in any case take some time.

The ruling of the Court is certainly important because it forces the European authorities to amend the Safe Harbor Agreement. However, it won't change much in practice for the European citizens. Firstly, in the United States, people become more aware that programs intercepting massively telephone and internet communications violate the constitutional rights of the American people. On the other hand, in Europe, following terrorist acts, laws evolve significantly towards an increased collection of personal data by intelligence services. Both sides of the Atlantic may tend gradually towards a partially equivalent system of data protection.

If a new agreement can't be reached, American companies would be forced to obtain the permission of the national authorities of each European country or store and manage personal data of European citizens in Europe. 

The transatlantic transfer of data (in fact, mainly flows from Europe to the United States) continues and is even not interrupted. According to the European Commission, "other mechanisms for international transfers of personal data are available under EU data protection law". 

So, transfers of personal data remain legally allowed in various cases (e.g. in order to perform a contract, for medical reasons, or for reasons of public order) or simply with the free consent of the related individuals. American companies can also adapt privacy clauses in contracts.

The continuation of transatlantic data flows is one of the priorities of the European Commission in this matter.

Updated on February 29, 2016: The European Commission has today issued the legal texts that will put in place the new umbrella-agreement negotiated with the USA on this matter. The agreement relies on the Judicial Redress Act granting EU citizens the right to enforce data protection rights in U.S. courts as well as a series of written commitments to be made by the U.S. as for the limitations and safeguards regarding access to data by public authorities on national security grounds.

The new umbrella-agreement provides among others for the establishment of a free of charge alternative mechanism for settling the complaints which have not been resolved by companies within 45 days, the opportunity for EU citizens to go to their national Data Protection Authorities, who will work with the Federal Trade Commission to ensure that unresolved complaints by EU citizens are investigated and resolved, and the establishment of an arbitration mechanism as a last resort.

Willgoto, May 2, 2015. Updated on October 6, 2015 and February 29, 2016.

Read also the second part of this article: VAT on Google search engine?


(1) >> Privacy policy.
(2) >> Accounts Help >> Dashboard data.
(3) >> Privacy & terms >> Types of cookies used by Google.
(4) >> Privacy & terms >> Types of cookies used by Google.
(5) >> Privacy & terms >> Types of cookies used by Google.

(6) >> Search help >> Google Web & App Activity.
(7) >> Ads Help >> About Google Ads.


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