Australian Privacy Laws, Google AdWords & Analytics

In a recent article, we outlined some of the most significant changes to Australian privacy laws in 20 years. The Attorney-General's department claims that privacy laws "have been brought into the digital age" – a little late perhaps, but a positive step. The laws are aimed at protecting consumer information; the reforms will give people more power to opt out of direct marketing and will impose much tougher fines and tighten restrictions on businesses sending personal information offshore.

As online marketers, we use consumer information to optimise and improve our marketing campaigns. We use Google Analytics to understand consumers and measure how they engage with our website. But are we at risk for million dollar fines? Let's take a look.

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Privacy Restrictions of Google Analytics

Most of the changes to the Australian privacy laws relate to personal information. Up until recently, Google Analytics accounts risked being shut down by Google if they tracked any personally identifiable information. More recently Google Analytics introduced Universal Analytics, allowing us to store anonymous IDs that can be linked back to individuals in another database, such as an e-commerce system or CRM. Still, Google does not allow us to store personally identifiable information in Google Analytics.

Even for the display network campaigns that use these loose, anonymous profiles, Google requires that sites disclose the features that they're using in their site privacy policy as well as information on how users can opt-out of receiving customised ads using the Ads Preference Manager.

Google's privacy policy is similar in spirit to the new Australian privacy legislation. Therefore, we need to be upfront about how we're using personal information, because users often don't know what how they're being tracked or how they can opt out if they don't like it.

Online Marketers, Orwellian Overlords

It's safe to say that most Australians who use the internet don't understand how Google Analytics works, how AdWords delivers targeted ads, or how online ads seem to follow us around the internet. These days I'm not surprised to hear stories about how Google, Facebook, or "the internet" track our every move, know everything we do online, and invade our privacy by targeting us with invasive advertising.

I bet 99.9% of us have seen the paranoid Facebook posts that come before people close down their accounts, and relatively non-technical people speculating on how Google targets us with ads. For those with little understanding, it's easy to come to the conclusion that Google tracks our every move on the internet, that Google understands what we are personally doing, and that targeted ads are a massive invasion of privacy.

For those of us who work in online marketing, we know that ads generally seem to follow users because a specific site has flagged cookies for follow-up with ads owned by that site. Beyond that, user targeting on the display network is pretty basic: Google takes note of what categories of sites we visit and has a guess at our age, gender and language preferences. This is associated with an anonymous cookie on our devices – which means that when you clear cookies, open a different browser, or use a different device, Google uses a different cookie and a different profile. You can view (and edit) the profile that Google has built up in the Google Ads Preference manager.

On my work laptop using Chrome, Google guessed that I was male, 35-44 years old and that I speak English. In Safari, Google had no idea who I am because I'd just been playing around with AdBlock for testing. On my phone, again, Google had no idea who I am. At home, where my browsing habits must be much more immature, Google guessed that I was 25-34. On my home laptop, which I share with my fiancé, Google thinks I'm a 30 year old female and I see heaps of wedding-related ads (we are getting married soon).

Coming back to the privacy laws, none of this is personally identifiable information can be used for direct marketing. Google's guess at my age and interests can't be used to work out who I am to call me, email me or knock on my door. Continuing to use Google products will not result in a massive fine under the new Australian privacy laws, so online marketers can rest easy for the time being!