Earning Digital Dollars and Backing Dictators: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Interactive Advertising in China

As Bill Gates prepares to fete the Chinese President at his home—and as last week’s headlines remind us that the “do no evil” motto of Google is meaningless [“Google defends censorship in China”], we thought it would be useful to focus on a little discussed aspect of the “we will do anything to market in China” tech story. It’s the role which interactive advertising is playing driving companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google to do anything to please the Chinese government; even the censoring of search content and the turning over of personal user data to the police.

Microsoft, in fact, has selected China as its primary location to create the next generation of interactive advertising technologies. adLab, based in Beijing, was launched by Microsoft in January. Its mission is to use its “state-of-the-art” facilities, and “top-notch group of more than 50 researchers” to “incubate advanced technologies …designed to provide advertisers with rich targeting capabilities based on audience intelligence information…” Among the expertise assembled at the Microsoft China lab are researchers expert in “data mining, information retrieval, statistical analysis, artificial intelligence, …and visual computing.” The Beijing facility is working (along with Seattle colleagues) on forty projects or so—including on what they call “social network mining” and “video hyperlink advertising.” These technologies will be used to more precisely target us with personalized advertising. They will give advertisers a rich set of personal information based on the tracking and analyzing of our behavior. Such data in the hands of marketers is bad enough. But it will also be likely turned over to governments, including authoritarian regimes.
By selecting Beijing as the location to help develop the company’s online business future, Microsoft has made a powerful statement about the importance of the China market itself. They—as do Google and Yahoo—see many billions of dollars from the online targeting of billions of Chinese computer users. The three are all competing to dominate the China market. Microsoft even sued Google for stealing one its executives who is setting up its China-based research center.

Bill Gates, Jerry Yang, Eric Schmidt and the other executives should be challenging repressive regimes by refusing to operate in countries where search is censored and information about dissenters has to be turned over to authorities. But these companies see the digital future and it’s about targeted ads—along with new forms of commercial and political surveillance.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

2 thoughts on “Earning Digital Dollars and Backing Dictators: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Interactive Advertising in China”

  1. You have hit the nail on the head, it is pathetic how these tech giants can’t stand up and do the right thing. I saw Frontline’s “Tank Man” recently, a man and his shopping bags stood up to a tank column.

    I wonder if Bill Gates’ famed digital artwork in his home was programed to show the “Tank Man” image when his distinguished guest stayed for dinner. Granted, it would have been tactless, however, Mr Gates does have access top people, he has the opportunities to say and do the right things and speak out. But I bet he just tried to sell Vista to the Chinese…

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