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EDPB Guidelines on the targeting of social media users overview

EDPB Guidelines on the targeting of social media users overview

On 2nd September, the EDPB adopted their Guidelines 8/2020 on the targeting of social media users, which aim to clarify the implications that these practices may have on privacy and data protection.

Most social media platforms allow their users to manage their privacy preferences by enabling the option to make their profiles public or private. Pictures, videos and text are not the only personal information processed in this context though: what about analytics used to target social media users? Analytics are also personal data and they should be managed and protected accordingly. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) is aware of the risks this creates to the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals and has published these guidelines to provide their recommendations with regard to the roles and responsibilities of targeters and social media providers.

Actors involved in social media targeting

The EDPB explains the concepts of social media providers, users and targeters as follows:

  • Social media providers should be understood as providers of online platforms that enable the development of networks and communities of users, among which information and content is shared.
  • Users are the individuals who are registered with the service and create accounts and profiles which data is used for targeting purposes. This term also comprises those individuals that access the services without having registered.
  • Targeters are defined as natural or legal persons that communicate specific messages to the users of social media in order to advance commercial, political, or other interests, on the basis of specific parameters or criteria.
  • Other actors who may be also relevant are marketing service providers, ad networks, ad exchanges, demand-side and supply-side platforms, data brokers, data management providers (DMPs) and data analytics companies.

Identifying the roles and responsibilities of the various actors correctly is key in the process, as the interaction between social media providers and other actors may give rise to joint responsibilities under the GDPR.

Risks to the rights and freedoms of users

The EDPB highlights some of the main risks that may be derived from social media targeting:

  • Uses of personal data that go against or beyond individuals’ reasonable expectations.
  • Combination of personal data from different sources.
  • Existence of profiling activities connected to targeting.
  • Obstacles to the individual’s ability to exercise control over his or her personal data.
  • Lack of transparency regarding the role of the different actors and the processing operations.
  • Possibility of discrimination and exclusion.
  • Potential possible manipulation of users and undue influence over them.
  • Political and ideological polarisation.
  • Information overload.
  • Manipulation over children’s autonomy and their right to development.
  • Concentration in the markets of social media and targeting.

Relevant case law

The EDPB analyses the respective roles and responsibilities of social media providers and targeters through the relevant case law of the CJEU, namely the judgments in Wirtschaftsakademie (C-210/16) and Fashion ID (C-40/17):

– In Wirtschaftsakademie, the CJEU decided that the administrator of a so-called “fan page” on Facebook must be regarded as taking part in the determination of the purposes and means of the processing of personal data. The reasoning behind this decision is that the creation of a fan page involves the definition of parameters by the administrator, which has an influence on the processing of personal data for the purpose of producing statistics based on visits to the fan page, using the filters provided by Facebook.

– In Fashion ID, the CJEU decided that a website operator can be a considered a controller when it embeds a Facebook social plugin on its website that causes the browser of a visitor to transmit personal data of the visitor to Facebook. However, the liability of the website operator will be “limited to the operation or set of operations involving the processing of personal data in respect of which it actually determines the purposes and means”, therefore the website operator will not be a controller for subsequent operations carried out by Facebook after the data has been transmitted.

Roles and responsibilities of targeters and social media providers

Social media users may be targeted on the basis of provided, observed or inferred data, as well as a combination thereof.

In most cases both the targeter and the social media provider will participate in determining the purpose (e.g. to display a specific advertisement to a set of individuals social media users who make up the target audience) and means (e.g. by choosing to use the services offered by the social media provider and requesting it to target an audience based on certain criteria, on the one hand and by deciding which categories of data shall be processed, which targeting criteria shall be offered and who shall have access, on the other hand) of the processing personal data, therefore they will be deemed to be joint controllers pursuant to the Article 26 GDPR.

As pointed out by the CJEU in Fashion ID, the joint controllership status will only extend to those processing operations for which the targeter and the social media provider effectively co-determine the purposes and means, such as the processing of personal data resulting from the selection of the relevant targeting criteria, the display of the advertisement to the target audience and the processing of personal data undertaken by the social media provider to report to the targeter about the results of the targeting campaign. However, the joint control does not extend to operations involving the processing of personal data at other stages occurring before the selection of the relevant targeting criteria or after the targeting and reporting has been completed.

The EDPB also recalls that actual access to personal data is not a prerequisite for joint responsibility, thus the above analysis would remain the same even if the targeter only specified the parameters of its intended audience and did not have access to the personal data of the affected users.

Legal bases of the processing

It is important to note that, as joint controllers, both the social media provider and the targeter must be able to demonstrate the existence of a legal basis pursuant to the Article 6 GDPR to justify the processing of personal data for which each of the joint controllers is responsible.

In general terms, the two legal basis that are more likely to apply are legitimate interest and data subject’s consent.

In order to rely on legitimate interest as the lawful basis, there are three cumulative conditions that should be met:

– (i) the pursuit of a legitimate interest by each the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed;
– (ii) the need to process personal data for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued, and
– (iii) the condition that the fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject whose data require protection do not take precedence.

In addition, opt-out should be enabled in a manner that data subjects should not only be provided with the possibility to object to the display of targeted advertising when accessing the platform, but also be provided with controls that ensure the underlying processing of his or her personal data for the targeting purpose no longer takes place after he or she has objected.

Legitimate interest will not be suitable in some circumstances though, therefore consent will be required in those cases. Intrusive profiling and tracking practices for marketing or advertising purposes that involve tracking individuals across multiple websites, locations, devices, services or data-brokering would be some of the examples.

The EDPB further notes that the consent collected for the implementation of tracking technologies needs to fulfil the conditions laid out in Article 7 GDPR in order to be valid. They highlight that pre-ticked check-boxes by the service provider which the user must then deselect to refuse his or her consent do not constitute valid consent. Moreover, based on recital 32, actions such as scrolling or swiping through a webpage or similar user activity would not under any circumstances satisfy the requirement of a clear and affirmative action, because such actions may be difficult to distinguish from other activity or interaction by a user, which means that determining that an unambiguous consent has been obtained would also not be possible. Furthermore, in such a case, it would be difficult to provide a way for the user to withdraw consent in a manner that is as easy as granting it.

The controller that should be in charge of collecting the consent from the data subjects will be the one that is involved first with them. This is because consent, in order to be valid, should be obtained prior to the processing. The EDPB also recalls that the controller gathering consent should name any other controllers to whom the data will be transferred and who wish to rely on the original consent.

Finally, where the profiling undertaken is likely to have a “similarly significant [effect]” on a data subject (for example, the display of online betting advertisements), Article 22 GDPR shall be applicable. An assessment in this regard will need to be conducted by the controller or joint controllers in each instance with reference to the specific facts of the targeting.

The EDPB welcomes comments to the Guidelines until 19th October.

You can learn more about joint controllership in our recent blog Joint controllership: key considerations by the EDPB.


Are you targeting social media users? You may need to adapt your processes to comply with the GDPR and the EDPB Guidelines. We can help you. Aphaia provides both GDPR, Data Protection Act 2018 and ePrivacy adaptation consultancy services, including data protection impact assessments, CCPA compliance and Data Protection Officer outsourcing.

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