Adtech giant Criteo hit with revised €40M fine by French data privacy body over GDPR breaches

French advertising technology giant Criteo has been issued with a revised fine of €40 million ($44 million) over failings to garner users’ consent around targeted advertising.

The case in question dates back to 2018 when Privacy International filed a formal complaint with the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), France’s data privacy watchdog, using GDPR regulations that had recently been introduced across the European Union. Privacy International said it was “gravely concerned” at the data processing activities of several players in the data broking and adtech industry, one of which was Criteo. None of Your Business (NOYB), an Austria-based non-profit based in co-founded by lawyer and privacy activist Max Schrems, also later added its name to the complaint.

The crux of the complaint centred on what Privacy International referred to as a “manipulation machine,” vis-à-vis how it used various tracking and data-processing techniques to profile internet users for more granular ad-targeting, such as using prior online activity to predict what products an online shopper might want to buy — this is known as “behavioral retargeting.” Privacy International and NOYB asserted that Criteo didn’t have a proper legal basis for this tracking, with the CNIL launching a formal investigation in 2020.

Preliminary decision

Fast-forward to August 2022, and the CNIL reached a preliminary decision that Criteo had indeed breached GDPR and slapped the Paris-based company with a €60 million fine. In the intervening months, however, Criteo sought to reduce the figure.

Indeed, in a summary document made public today, Criteo seemingly argued that its actions were non-deliberate and did not result in any harm. It said (translation via DeepL):

The company believes that better consideration of the criteria set out in Article 83(2) of the GDPR, in particular with regard to the absence of evidence of harm, the non-deliberate nature of the breaches, the measures taken to mitigate harm, the cooperation it says it has shown with the supervisory authority and the categories of personal data concerned, which present low intrusiveness, would justify that, should the restricted panel decide to impose a fine, it significantly reduce the amount of 60 million euros proposed by the rapporteur.

Moreover, Criteo said that the initial fine represented half of its earnings and 3% of its global sales, which is “close to the legal maximum” allowed under GDPR, and was excessive compared to other fines meted out by the CNIL to the likes of Google and Facebook’s parent Meta, which amounted to just 0.07% and 0.06% of their respective global sales.

Thus, CNIL has paid heed to Criteo’s grievances and reduced the fine by a third. However, the CNIL’s final report still paints a scathing picture of Criteo’s disregard for data privacy.

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