Will GDPR Kill or Consolidate the Duopoly?

GDPR was designed to put privacy first. And it is our hope it will benefit publishers, brands and lawmakers alike. But while winnowing out bad actors in ad tech is one step forward, strengthening the duopoly would mark another one back.

We’ve already hit peak GDPR. That was true even before US senators started namedropping it. Despite so many column inches, still we lack a clear picture of life post-25th May. But for unintended consequences, it seems clearer by the day.

Dealing with the Duopoly

Globally the EU stands alone in its willingness to curb digital monopolies. Only last year saw the Foundem case result in a €2.4bn fine for Google’s alleged fixing of shopping search results. And its intentions with GDPR may in part be laid down to limiting their reach.

But as Facebook/Cambridge Analytica-gate has also shown, the trading and usage of third party data is just as much a threat to consumer privacy. And any limits posed on that are far more of a threat to the wider ad tech industry, than Mountain View and Menlo Park.

 Photo by  Matthew Henry

Photo by Matthew Henry

Unintended Consequences

Third party data and relationships are also linked to some of the major GDPR developments we’ve seen so far. First was YouTube’s removal of third party ad buyers and trackers on its platform. Followed by rumours of the same to come within DFA, Google’s display buying platform for advertisers. And with the vast majority of publishers also reliant on Google for ad serving, there are whispers the tech giant will now place arbitrary limits on which vendors they can work with too.

Where it gets complicated is down to the unregulated use of third party data, arbitrage and bad actors in ad tech. It’s possible that the above steps by Google could be both an opportunistic way to shore up its own business, and a step forward in upholding GDPR. There are also echoes of the same process in Facebook’s removal of 3rd party data providers’ from its platform. Even if there’s still nothing stopping advertisers manually adding it themselves.

Now may be the time ad tech finally begins to count the cost for an over-reliance on a single tactic - personalised targeting. And around a practice that consumers have never understood, much less bought into. If you don’t believe me, just look to the ongoing prevalence of ad blocking.

Pity the Publisher

Not so single-minded is the interpretation of gaining consent under GDPR. For Google, the approach seems to be, as set out by publisher lobby group DCN:

Google will control all the data on the publisher site (not just data related to serving an ad) and their publisher “partners” will take all the liability for getting consent from consumers. Oh, and by the way, Google won’t provide any specificity (as required by GDPR) about how they intend to use the consumer’s data.

It’s hard to see this approach as anything but one which serves Google’s own interests, while further weakening publishers. But in a market where you’re reliant on one partner for your future survival, is there even much of a choice?

As so often in media, precedents set at the top quickly trickle down and are co-opted by everyone. The fear is GDPR may reinforce the media food chain. With news creators right at the bottom.

As for how brands fit into all this, should we believe the claims that YouTube and Facebook’s recent embarrassments will truly have no affect on spend? Only time will tell. Perhaps more likely, here again we see evidence of the lack of a major, viable alternative to the duopoly. Which makes the thought of GDPR further bolstering their dominant position an even scarier prospect.

There is irrefutable evidence that brands do care. For one, a prominent group of WFA members have said they intend to go above and beyond the GDPR regulation, to set new and higher standards.

We can only hope this initiative bears fruit, and it is brands that take the upper hand – and truly support the spirit of GDPR - greater choice and control for consumers, not less.


GDPR and the duopoly are turning advertising on its head. illuma uncovers relevant audiences and new prospects, without 3rd party data – get in touch for more info, or to set up a product trial.

Duncan Arthur