Italy has become the third country to rule against the use of Google Analytics officially. The news broke today after a careful examination concluded that Google Analytics violated GDPR law. You can find the statement here.
See the full article here
Italian SA bans use of Google Analytics
No adequate safeguards for data transfers to the USA
A website using Google Analytics (GA) without the safeguards set out in the EU GDPR violates data protection law because it transfers users' data to the USA, which is a country without an adequate level of data protection.
The Italian SA came to this conclusion after a complex fact-finding exercise it had started in close coordination with other EU data protection authorities following complaints it had received. The Italian SA found that the website operators using GA collected, via cookies, information on user interactions with the respective websites, visited pages and services on offer. The multifarious set of data collected in this connection included the user device IP address along with information on browser, operating system, screen resolution, selected language, date and time of page viewing. This information was found to be transferred to the USA. In determining that the processing was unlawful, the Italian SA reiterated that an IP address is a personal data and would not be anonymised even if it were truncated – given Google’s capabilities to enrich such data through additional information it holds.
Based on the above findings, the Italian SA adopted a decision, to be followed by additional ones, reprimanding Caffeina Media S.r.l. – a website operator – and ordering it to bring the processing into compliance with the GDPR by ninety days. This deadline was considered to be appropriate in order to allow the operator to implement adequate measures in connection with the data transfer; if this is found not to be the case, suspension of the GA-related data flows to the USA will be ordered.
The Italian SA highlighted, in particular, that US-based governmental and intelligence agencies may access the personal data being transferred without the required safeguards; it pointed out in this regard that the measures adopted by Google to supplement the data transfer instruments did not ensure an adequate level of protection for users’ personal data in the light of the guidance provided by the EDPB through its Recommendations No 1/2020 of 18 June 2021.
Upon expiry of the 90-day deadline set out in its decision, the Italian SA will check that the data transfers at issue are compliant with the EU GDPR, including by way of ad-hoc inspections.
Rome, 23 June 2022
This news only comes a week after CNIL (French Data Protection Agency) published guidelines on the Google Analytics matter. These guidelines resulted from the statements made earlier this year in which CNIL banned the use of Google Analytics.
More and more authorities are ruling against Google Analytics. This is not surprising: European data protection authorities coordinated their approach to cases involving Google Analytics’ data transfers. With coordination at a European level and the influential French and Italian DPAs leading the way, we expect more authorities to follow the example.
- Italian SA bans use of Google Analytics
- Is Google Analytics really illegal in Italy?
- What did the GPDP say exactly?
- The issue with data transfers
- The French CNIL Q&A Guidelines on Google Analytics
- What are the risks of continuing to use Google Analytics in Italy?
- Are there different European analytics providers out there?
- How can you be sure that other analytics providers are GDPR compliant?
- Final Thoughts
Let's dive in!
Is Google Analytics really illegal in Italy?
In theory, no. In practice, yes.
The GPDP did not exactly say that you cannot use Google Analytics. It only forbids a specific website from doing so.
So what is all the fuss about? Well, the GPDP's decision highlighted a lack of safeguards in the data transfers which are required to run Google Analytics. In theory, a different website could implement better safeguards and use Google Analytics in a GDPR-compliant way. But in practice, no website is positioned to do so (as we explained here).
So while the ruling does not technically ban Google Analytics, it sets a precedent that practically amounts to a State-wide ban. The same goes for every decision so far. In practical terms, Google Analytics is banned from Austria, France, and Italy (edit: and now Hungary too).
Privacy professionals and marketers are well aware that the recent decisions against Google Analytics practically amount to declaring it unlawful. This is why the rulings have drawn so much media attention.
The next domino is falling, Italy bans Google Analytics
What did the GPDP say exactly?
An Italian news outlet (caffeinamagazine) used Google Analytics. When Google Analytics processes data, the information is sent from Google Ireland to its parent company Google in the US. This data transfer is only lawful under the GPDR when the data protection rights of the user can be adequately protected. According to the Schrems II ruling, the data controller must implement effective safeguards to keep the data confidential against US surveillance.
The GPDP considered all the safeguards in place for the data transfers and found them insufficient. (Non-end-to-end) encryption is insufficient because Google holds the key and can be required to hand them over to State agencies. The contractual safeguards in place between Google Ireland and Google are insufficient without any technical measures. The GPDP also clarified that the user's IP address is personal data even when anonymized by Google because Google employs very weak anonymization.
None of this is new. In fact, the GPDP is only repeating what the Austrian and French DPAs already clarified, and all authorities simply apply the criteria laid out by the Schrems II judgment.
The issue with data transfers
But what makes data transfers to the US so problematic? Why do we need safeguards for them? Companies such as Google, Facebook, and AWS can be required to hand over personal data of foreigners to US agencies under US law (FISA Section 702).
Google's privacy concerns are nothing new. In 2013, the Snowden files revealed that foreign citizens' personal data could be subject to invasive State surveillance when transferred to the US. The Snowden revelations unlighted two broad intelligence collection programs (Upstream and PRISM) authorized under FISA. Concerns over the broad scope of FISA and the lack of effective remedies against US surveillance led the EU Court of Justice to invalidate two data transfer frameworks between the EU and the US in the landmark Schrems I and II decisions.
The 2020 Schrems II ruling has far-reaching implications for European companies. In principle, data can still be transferred to the US without any data transfer framework. However, the CJEU clarified that European companies must ensure the confidentiality of data transfers by implementing adequate safeguards against State surveillance. In practical terms, this is hard to do and entirely impossible for certain cloud-based services (we wrote about this here).
In the aftermath of Schrems II, privacy NGO noyb filed 101 identical complaints against data transfers centered on the use of Google Analytics and Facebook Connect. The complaints involve all EU DPAs and constitute a strategic effort to nudge Europe towards stricter enforcement of the rules clarified in Schrems II.
As we said, DPAs coordinated their approach to these complaints at a European level. As a result, three European DPAs (the Austrian DSB, the French CNIL, and now the Italian GPDP) (update: and the Hungarian NAIH) ruled against the use of Google Analytics. In line with the Schrems II ruling, the DPAs found the data transfers from Google Ireland to Google LLC to be unlawful because they lacked effective safeguards against US surveillance.
The French CNIL Q&A Guidelines on Google Analytics
In their Q&A last week, CNIL addressed all the questions raised after they announced Google Analytics to be illegal in February of this year. Since then, Google has suggested different approaches to making sure Google Analytics can be used safely within the E.U. law. However, CNIL concluded that it is technically impossible to use Google Analytics compliantly.
Google has suggested different solutions that were shut down by CNIL:
- IP anonymization is not a valid solution because Google could not demonstrate that anonymization takes place before transferring the data to the U.S.
- Data encryption is an ineffective safeguard because Google holds the keys and can be required to hand it over to State agencies.
What are the risks of continuing to use Google Analytics in Italy?
If you use Google Analytics in Italy, you are not complying with the GDPR. If someone files a complaint or the DPA investigates your transfers, you could be in trouble.
It should be noted that the Italian DPA announced further investigations (English translation below) on the use of Google Analytics from both companies and institutions, so the authority is taking a proactive approach to the matter. We can expect more cases about Google Analytics, including own-volition investigations.
Are there different European analytics providers out there?
Yes, there are. We built Simple Analytics to provide you with a privacy-friendly, GDPR-compliant tool for web analytics. There are other alternatives too- you can check out alternativeto.net for ideas.
How can you be sure that other analytics providers are GDPR compliant?
Just because you are not using Google Analytics doesn’t mean you are compliant. And just because a provider is European doesn’t mean they are not relying on US-based processors themselves. You need to carefully read all terms and documentation with each provider and assess their policies.
Please note that choosing a compliant provider is only a part of the picture: you are also responsible for compliance and must do your part.
You should respect user choice and set up your analytics tool so that no analytics or advertising cookies are written without or before collecting consent. Many websites fail to do this, and it’s entirely their fault- their software has nothing to do with it! You must also provide sufficient and accurate information to your audience and make sure that you collect consent through a GDPR-compliant cookie banner- whether by implementing it yourself from scratch, or by choosing compliant settings for your Consent Management Platform.
(We covered cookie banners in another blog, feel free to check it out if you're curious)
A lot has happened in the months following the GPDP decision, so here are some updates:
- The GPDP decided on two more of the complaints, ruling against the use of Google Analytics again. This confirms what was obvious already: the first case set a crucial precedent, and any other cases will be decided accordingly. The second and third decisions were literally copy-pasted from the first.
- the Danish DPA essentially embraced the same approach in a press release on the use of Google Analytics.
- The Finnish Ombudsman joined the DSB, CNIL, and GPDP in ruling against Google Analytics.
- In a still pending case, the Norwegian Datatilsynet reached a preliminary conclusion that the use of Google Analytics is illegal.
- A new framework for EU-US data transfers is on the way. The new framework is still problematic in some respects and will undoubtedly face a challenge in Court. We're looking at yet another Schrems ruling, and it's hard to say how it will play out.
- Meta Ireland was fined €1.2 billion and ordered to suspend data transfers for Facebook. The legal issues are the same involved in the decisions against Google Analytics. We discussed this important decision in detail.
- We wrote two blogs about data transfers in general and Google Analytics' troubles with data transfers. These contain more in-depth information on the topics.
Before concluding, it might be worthwhile to summarize what we've seen:
- Multiple DPAs have ruled against Google Analytics so far
- DPAs follow a coordinated approach, and two influential DPAs lead the way. Other authorities are likely to follow (update: the Hungarian DPA did)
- Decisions are nearly identical and practically amount to a Statewide ban.
Also worth mentioning: Consumers demand privacy.
The business environment is changing, and you should ask yourself if you want to move with it or stick to old beliefs and practices.
Google is even moving away from its current version of Google Analytics by sunsetting Universal Analytics in favor of GA4. In a statement, they announced that privacy is one of the main drivers for the switch. Although GA4 is still not privacy-friendly, at least they acknowledge that the world is changing.
There are alternatives to Google Analytics that actually care about the privacy of your users. Simple Analytics is one of them, but before I tell you that we are the best, we've created an in-depth comparison with other privacy-friendly alternatives to make your own decision.
We believe it's not only a matter of staying within the law. Yes, that's important too. But it goes beyond that. We believe you can still make decisions based on website data without needing to collect personal data or track individuals.
That's why we built Simple Analytics. To provide you with the insights you need while protecting the privacy of your users and being 100% GDPR compliant. If this resonates with you, feel free to give us a try.