Four years have passed since the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, also known as DSGVO in German, and RGPD in French) took effect.
That’s ample time to get compliant, especially for an organisation as big and innovative as Google. Or is it?
If you are wondering how GDPR affects Google Analytics 4 and what the compliance status is at present, here’s the lowdown.
Is Google Analytics 4 GDPR Compliant?
No. As of mid-2022, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) isn’t fully GDPR compliant. Despite adding extra privacy-focused features, GA4 still has murky status with the European regulators. After the invalidation of the Privacy Shield framework in 2020, Google is yet to regulate EU-US data protection. At present, the company doesn’t sufficiently protect EU citizens’ and residents’ data against US surveillance laws. This is a direct breach of GDPR.
Google Analytics and GDPR: a Complex Relationship
European regulators have scrutinised Google since GDPR came into effect in 2018.
While the company took steps to prepare for GDPR provisions, it didn’t fully comply with important regulations around user data storage, transfer and security.
The relationship between Google and EU regulators got more heated after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) invalidated the Privacy Shield — a leeway Google used for EU-US data transfers. After 2020, GDPR litigation against Google followed.
This post summarises the main milestones in this story and explains the consequences for Google Analytics users.
2018: Google Analytics Meets GDPR
In 2018, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — a set of privacy and data security laws, covering all member states. Every business interacting with EU citizens and/or residents had to comply.
GDPR harmonised data protection laws across member states and put down extra provisions for what constitutes sensitive personal information (or PII). Broadly, PII includes any data about the person’s:
- Racial or ethnic origin
- Employment status
- Religious or political beliefs
- State of health
- Genetic or biometric data
- Financial records (such as payment method data)
- Address and phone numbers
Businesses were barred from collecting this information without explicit consent (and even with it in some cases). If collected, such sensitive information is also subject to strict requirements on how it should be stored, secured, transferred and used.
7 Main GDPR Principles Explained
Article 5 of the GDPR lays out seven main GDPR principles for personal data and privacy protection:
- Lawfulness, fairness and transparency — data must be obtained legally, collected with consent and in adherence to laws.
- Purpose limitation — all personal information must be collected for specified, explicit and legal purposes.
- Data minimisation — companies must collect only necessary and adequate data, aligned with the stated purpose.
- Accuracy — data accuracy must be ensured at all times. Companies must have mechanisms to erase or correct inaccurate data without delays.
- Storage limitation — data must be stored only for as long as the stated purpose suggests. Though there’s no upper time limit on data storage.
- Integrity and confidentiality (security) — companies must take measures to ensure secure data storage and prevent unlawful or unauthorised access to it.
- Accountability — companies must be able to demonstrate adherence to the above principles.
Google claimed to have taken steps to make all of their products GDPR compliant ahead of the deadline. But in practice, this wasn’t always the case.
In March 2018, a group of publishers admonished Google for not providing them with enough tools for GDPR compliance:
The proposed Google Analytics GDPR consent form was hard to implement and lacked customisation options. In fact, Google “makes unilateral decisions” on how the collected data is stored and used.
Users had no way to learn about or control all intended uses of people’s data — which made compliance with the second clause impossible.
Unsurprisingly, Google was among the first companies to face a GDPR lawsuit (together with Facebook).
By 2019, French data regulator CNIL, successfully argued that Google wasn’t sufficiently disclosing its data collection across products — and hence in breach of GDPR. After a failed appeal, Google had to pay a €50 million fine and promise to do better.
2019: Google Analytics 4 Announcement
Throughout 2019, Google rightfully attempted to resolve some of its GDPR shortcomings across all products, Google Universal Analytics (UA) included.
They added a more visible consent mechanism for online tracking and provided extra compliance tips for users to follow. In the background, Google also made tech changes to its data processing mechanism to get on the good side of regulations.
Though Google addressed some of the issues, they missed others. A 2019 independent investigation found that Google real-time-bidding (RTB) ad auctions still used EU citizens’ and residents’ data without consent, thanks to a loophole called “Push Pages”. But they managed to quickly patch this up before the allegations had made it to court.
In November 2019, Google released a beta version of the new product version — Google Analytics 4, due to replace Universal Analytics.
GA4 came with a set of new privacy-focused features for ticking GDPR boxes such as:
- Data deletion mechanism. Users can now request to surgically extract certain data from the Analytics servers via a new interface.
- Shorter data retention period. You can now shorten the default retention period to 2 months by default (instead of 14 months) or add a custom limit.
- IP Anonymisation. GA4 doesn’t log or store IP addresses by default.
Though Google made some progress, Google Analytics 4 still has many limitations — and isn’t GDPR compliant.
2020: Privacy Shield Invalidation Ruling
As part of the 2018 GDPR preparations, Google named its Irish entity (Google Ireland Limited) as the “data controller” legally responsible for EEA and Swiss users’ information.
The company announcement says:
Initially, Google assumed that this legal change would help them ensure GDPR compliance as “legally speaking” a European entity was set in charge of European data.
Practically, however, EEA consumers’ data was still primarily transferred and processed in the US — where most Google data centres are located. Until 2020, such cross-border data transfers were considered legal thanks to the Privacy Shield framework.
But in July 2020, The EU Court of Justice ruled that this framework doesn’t provide adequate data protection to digitally transmitted data against US surveillance laws. Hence, companies like Google can no longer use it. The Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) reached the same conclusion in September 2020.
The invalidation of the Privacy Shield framework put Google in a tough position.
Article 14. f of the GDPR explicitly states:
Invalidation of the Privacy Shield framework prohibited Google from moving data to the US. At the same time, GDPR provisions mandated that they must disclose proper data location.
But Google Analytics (like many other products) had no a mechanism for:
- Guaranteeing intra-EU data storage
- Selecting a designated regional storage location
- Informing users about data storage location or data transfers outside of the EU
And these factors made Google Analytics in direct breach of GDPR — a territory, where they remain as of 2022.
2020-2022: Google GDPR Breaches and Fines
The 2020 ruling opened Google to GDPR lawsuits from country-specific data regulators.
Google Analytics in particular was under a heavy cease-fire.
- Sweden first fined Google for violating GDPR for no not fulfilling its obligations to request data delisting in 2020.
- France rejected Google Analytics 4 IP address anonymisation function as a sufficient measure for protecting cross-border data transfers. Even with it, US intelligence services can still access user IPs and other PII. France declared Google Analytics illegal and pressed a €150 million fine.
- Austria also found Google Analytics GDPR non-compliant and proclaimed the service as “illegal”. The authority now seeks a fine too.
New privacy controls in Google Analytics 4 do not resolve the underlying issue — unregulated, non-consensual EU-US data transfer.
Google Analytics GDPR non-compliance effectively opens any website tracking or analysing European visitors to legal persecution.
2022: Privacy Shield 2.0. Negotiations
Google isn’t the only US company affected by the Privacy Shield framework invalidation. The ruling puts thousands of digital companies at risk of non-compliance.
To settle the matter, US and EU authorities started “peace talks” in spring 2022.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that they are working with the Biden administration on the new agreement that will “enable predictable and trustworthy data flows between the EU and US, safeguarding the privacy and civil liberties.”
However, it’s just the beginning of a lengthy negotiation process. The matter is far from being settled and contentious issues remain as we discussed on Twitter (come say hi!).
For one, the US isn’t eager to modify its surveillance laws and is mostly willing to make them “proportional” to those in place in the EU. These modifications may still not satisfy CJEU — which has the power to block the agreement vetting or invalidate it once again.
While these matters are getting hashed out, Google Analytics users, collecting data about EU citizens and/or residents, remain on slippery grounds. As long as they use GA4, they can be subject to GDPR-related lawsuits.
To Sum It Up
- Google Analytics 4 and Google Universal Analytics are not GDPR compliant because of Privacy Shield invalidation in 2020.
- French and Austrian data watchdogs named Google Analytics operations “illegal”. Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian authorities also claim it’s in breach of GDPR.
- Any website using GA for collecting data about European citizens and/or residents can be taken to court for GDPR violations (which is already happening).
- Privacy Shield 2.0 Framework discussions to regulate EU-US data transfers have only begun and may take years. Even if accepted, the new framework(s) may once again be invalidated by local data regulators as has already happened in the past.
Time to Get a GDPR Compliant Google Analytics Alternative
Retaining 100% data ownership is the optimal path to GDPR compliance.
By selecting a transparent web analytics solution that offers 100% data ownership, you can rest assured that no “behind the scenes” data collection, processing or transfers take place.
Unlike Google Analytics 4, Matomo offers all of the features you need to be GDPR compliant:
- Full data anonymisation
- Single-purpose data usage
- Easy consent and an opt-out mechanism
- First-party cookies usage by default
- Simple access to collect data
- Fast data removals
- EU-based data storage for Matomo Cloud (or storage in the country of your choice with Matomo On-Premise)
Learn about your audiences in a privacy-centred way and protect your business against unnecessary legal exposure.
Start your 21-day free trial (no credit card required) to see how fully GDPR-compliant website analytics works!