Opposition to Google/Yahoo! (or other mergers) Should be Based on Principle: Digital Pawns in Play?

Yesterday, we were contacted by a reporter asking our position on the possible Google/Yahoo! search advertising deal (we are opposed to such an arrangement, on both competition and privacy grounds). When we read the story online, we learned that one of the groups sending a letter to the DoJ was the Black Leadership Forum. That raised our concern, since we know that the Black Leadership Forum has had relationships with phone and cable companies. It has also, in the past at least, worked with Issue Dynamics (a company which helps phone, cable and other interests “organize” support from not-for-profit groups. I cite Issue Dynamic’s role with the Black Leadership Forum on page 75 of my book.).

We have not read the letter to the DoJ. Nor do we know of any financial or other relationship between the Forum and any of the many interests who are fighting Google (phone and cable companies, for example, are opposed to Google’s positions on network neutrality). But we believe that all financial relationships, even from the recent past, need to be identified. I know this is Washington, where too many people “lease out,” as we say around my office. But there are important issues at stake with the new media marketplace. Reporters will need to do more to identify whether there are financial and other relationships with groups from Google, Microsoft, phone and cable, etc. But the real focus should be to examine the state of competition in the online ad market–and what it means for the future of communications in the digital democratic era.

CDT & the Internet Education Foundation: Watch Out they Don’t Undermine the fight for Social Network Privacy

The Internet Education Foundation (IEF) plays an unfortunate gatekeeper role for the Congressional Internet Caucus. Jerry Berman serves as the chair of both the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) and the IEF (the two groups also have board members in common). IEF’s most high-profile project is the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, which organizes events for Congress on new media issues. This Wed. (Jan. 30), the group is holding its annual “State of the Net” event. Such congressional meetings really require a group independent of the special interests–especially on a topic so important as the role digital communication plays in a democracy. The event has been structured to be a tame affair–there will be little reality discussed about the real state of digital communications (since groups funding the congressional meeting–including Verizon, Google, Microsoft, AT&T–wouldn’t feel generous in their future giving if they faced a serious critique).

Take the panel on social networks, entitled: “Social Networking Privacy: An Oxymoron?” Such a title fits into the current interactive ad industry/MySpace/Facebook lobbying frame that claims young people don’t care about protecting their personal data. Social network users, especially teens, are being encouraged to place all their personal details on such sites without real safeguards. That’s why it’s time for new privacy policies that provide serious privacy protections on social networks. We urge everyone to read the recent EU paper on the subject, which should help galvanize the public into action. A responsible society should act swiftly to protect privacy online, especially for its youth. As the debate builds on social networks and privacy, it will be vital to inform policymakers about the real story.

To Cache a Thief: In their own words…Jones Day work in both U.S. and EU on behalf of DoubleClick:

This is G o o g l e‘s cache of http://www.jonesday.com/experience/experience_detail.aspx?exID=S11555 as retrieved on Nov 9, 2007 17:05:06 GMT.
G o o g l e‘s cache is the snapshot that we took of the page as we crawled the web.
The page may have changed since that time….

Client(s): DoubleClick Inc.

Representation: Acquisition by DoubleClick

Principal Professional(s): Joe Sims, Thomas Jestaedt, Alexandre G. Verheyden, Michael S. McFalls, Chris Ahern

Lead Practice(s): Antitrust Mergers/Joint Ventures

Industry(s): Media

Summary: Jones Day is advising DoubleClick Inc., the digital marketing technology provider, on the international and U.S. antitrust and competition law aspects of its planned $3.1 billion acquisition by Google Inc. The proposed acquisition will combine DoubleClick’s expertise in ad management technology with Google’s internet search and content platform. The transaction is currently under review by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and European Commission.

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Professional Representation

The Jones Day, Google/DoubleClick & FTC conflict of interest: a higher standard is required by the agency

Our lawyers are advising my organization on this matter, but I want to remind readers of one point. John Majoras of Jones Day is listed on its web site as the “Partner-in-Charge of business development in the Washington, D.C. Office and is a member of the Firmwide Business Development Committee.” [better read it now before Jones Day removes it!]

In that position, his role raises conflicts of interest with cases involving the FTC, in my opinion. With an issue involving the future of the Internet and the fate of digital media in a democracy, the highest standards are required. Chairman Majoras should have recused herself in this case. Jones Day should not have taken on DoubleClick as a client. Jones Day’s removal of the web pages discussing its role as advising DoubleClick in both the U.S. and EU raises serious questions about the firm’s activities in this merger case. There are so many key questions that must be publicly resolved. When did Jones Day begin representing DoubleClick? When did it announce, via its website, internal communications system, and through its representation with clients, regulators, and other outside parties, that it was representing DoubleClick? Did the FTC staff learn of the relationship between their boss’s husband’s law firm and the merger? (Please don’t tell me that such a relationship, even if spread informally, doesn’t have an impact on the proceeding.)

The public requires the highest standards of conduct from its public officials and leading law firms. This incident illustrates that more must be done to make such institutions accountable. Yesterday’s FOIA request by EPIC asking that the FTC provide it with all records related to its communications with Jones Day in this merger case (and related privacy issues) is a step in the direction of obtaining some sunshine.

Over the last six months, we have been focused on the business and privacy issues related to the Google and DoubleClick merger. We knew a huge lobbying operation was in effect, with Google having added significant political capacity in D.C., and various competitors (Microsoft, the phone companies, Yahoo!) jockeying for position. Our job at CDD was to provide some honest analysis about the realities of the online advertising business–its market structure, goals, and privacy threats. We didn’t have the time–nor the resources–to dig into the political aspects of the issue. Sadly, there was little serious journalism on the deal as well. But last Monday we decided to examine what role Jones Day was playing in the Google merger and learned–via its website–that it represented DoubleClick.

This case illustrates something we all know. That the big money and special interest nature of Washington politics is at odds with the concerns and needs of the average American. As I said, a higher standard is required–for public service, disclosure and intellectual rigor (something we believe the FTC has failed to do in this case and related privacy matters). It’s a story that not going away. That’s why we are writing about it–and keeping a watch as well!

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Google & the Public Interest Policy Pod People

They’re coming. The “Google Policy Fellows” to help staff an array of public interest groups and policy think-tanks. “As lawmakers around the world become more engaged on Internet policy,” says Google, “a robust and intelligent public debate around these issues becomes increasingly important…The Google Policy Fellowship program offers undergraduate, graduate, and law students interested in Internet and technology policy the opportunity to spend the summer contributing to the public dialogue on these issues…Fellows will… work at public interest organizations at the forefront of debates on broadband and access policy, content regulation, copyright and trademark reform, consumer privacy, open government, and more. Participating organizations… include: American Library Association, Cato Institute, Center for Democracy and Technology, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Internet Education Foundation, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, and Public Knowledge.”

It’s wrong for public interest and consumer organizations to take Google’s money and especially provide a “Fellowship” in its name. We need to build more consumer advocacy capacity to address Google’s growing power, especially its threat to privacy. No matter what these groups say (and some already take money from Google; others receive broad media industry support), there are digital strings attached, as subtle as they may be. The Fellowship program is just another lobbying and PR effort coming from a company that has a broad policy agenda. Many of the groups above should be training people to represent the public versus companies such as Google, and other big online advertisers and new media conglomerates. Giving Google a say on the training of policy advocates, let alone a funding role, undermines the public interest movement.

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CDT’s Privacy “Report”—Full Disclosure is Missing

CDT has long been an ally of the various data collection companies it purports to oversee on behalf of consumers. It’s funded by a number of them. In fact Microsoft’s Bill Gates helped raise money for the group just last March.

The report released today fails to address the wide-ranging privacy threat coming from the major search engines and their advertising clients. It fails to acknowledge that it’s only because of policy-related pressure from privacy advocates—including the FTC complaint filed last November by my Center for Digital Democracy and US PIRG—that there have been modest corporate changes. [As well as the work of these two groups and EPIC in the case of Google’s proposed merger with Doubleclick, and the role of European Commission authorities]. CDT’s report also fails to acknowledge that it’s because of the unprecedented series of mergers in the data collection sector over the last few months, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL [$33.4 billion in the first half of 2007 alone, according to Ad Age. sub may be required.] —and the subsequent US and international regulatory scrutiny—that has created the “pressure” to bring about a few modest changes in data collection and retention practices. Without real advocates pressing—and regulators taking up their demands—we would have no changes at all (as minimal as they are). The marketplace’s approach isn’t protecting consumers.

Most troubling is that CDT fails to acknowledge that the widespread and evolving role of interactive advertising practices by these companies—including behavioral targeting, “rich” immersive media, and virtual reality formats—pose a serious threat to privacy and personal autonomy. It is not just the “bad” actors that require federal legislation, as CDT’s report suggests. If all Americans are to be protected online, the entire industry must be governed by federal policies designed to ensure privacy and consumer protection.

Here is a comment from my colleague Jennifer Harris: “When a group – with as close ties to the industry as CDT has – calls for government oversight, it is necessary to recognize just how much slack the online advertising and marketing industry has been given with our personal information. The main point is that consumers are at risk; updated federal consumer protection policies are essential to an environment that increasingly uses personal data as its commodity.”

Yesterday, the FTC sent out a release announcing its November town meeting on online advertising and privacy. The hearing is in response to the formal complaint my group Center for Digital Democracy and the USPIRG filed last November.

It’s clear that the FTC is fearful of really tackling the privacy and consumer-manipulation problems intrinsic to the online ad field. Behavioral targeting, which we also address in our complaint, is just the tip of the proverbial data collection and target marketing iceberg. Policymakers at the FTC, the Congress, and state A-G’s must do a better job in addressing this problem. Chapter seven of my book covers the topic, along with recommendations. As we noted in our statement yesterday, CDD has given the staff at the FTC a ton of material since November, further making the case for immediate federal safeguards. There is so much at stake regarding the future of our (global) democratic culture and its relationship to online marketing. We hope others will join with us and raise the larger societal issues, in addition to the specific online ad marketplace concerns.

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We Need FTC to Protect Privacy. Privacy Groups Should Be Calling for Real Action–not Industry Friendly “Workshops”

My organization and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have asked the Federal Trade Commission to swiftly act and protect our privacy online. Last November, we filed a lengthy complaint asking for an intervention to stop behavioral targeting [pdf from Doubleclick] and associated spyware. But it seems that some groups aren’t that interested in action. They want the industry bigshots (who may be their funders) to come into the FTC and agree on “best practices.” That will likely mean no real privacy protection. Here’s the excerpt from a CNET story:

“The CDT has urged the FTC to hold a workshop on behavioral targeting to set best practices in the industry and get players like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to agree on them. The organization wants to ensure that people have control in the event that these companies begin to merge consumer information from search and Web-surfing records to personalize ads.”

Privacy groups need to demand that the FTC finish its investigation (it launched one last November as a result of our complaint). We have provided the FTC with so much additional information, they should be able to act by now. Workshops are a delaying tactic designed to help out the special interests. If you want to see just a small fraction of what we’ve sent the FTC investigative team, go to adwatch.

PS: Here’s the blog post from the Center for Democracy and Technology on its request for a FTC workshop. Read its letter to the FTC. Then ask yourself. Shouldn’t public interest groups identify in such a letter the companies which fund them and engage in behavioral targeting? Shouldn’t they acknowledge that one of their key supporters, Microsoft, is the subject of a related complaint now before the FTC? Follow the money and the data mining it helps bring.

Toyota Infiltrates Music `Scene’ and Network TV to Sell Scion

For years now we have said that “product placement” has been replaced by what we’ve termed “plot” placement. That means episodes of programs, entire series, and even TV networks created in support of a brand/sponsor (such as the new Bud.TV-reg required).

Toyota’s marketeers for its Scion line like to insert the brand in “hip” culture. Now, they are ramping up its efforts within the independent and underground music world, with negotiations to launch a reality TV show called “Stomping Grounds,” starring hip-hop artists who cruise around (in Scion vehicles) the neighborhoods they grew up in.” One of Scion’s agencies told MediaPost that “Stomping Grounds” is now in “film festivals, but we are approaching networks about licensing the show and making a series out of it. That’s how we would approach it, as a Scion-branded show, with Scion cars in it.” This week Scion launched “a program using hip-hop producer Hi-Tec, who has produced for 50 Cent and Jay Z, among others. As part of the program, “The Prospect,” he will select a promising hip-hop artist, record his music and make a music video, while Inform Ventures develops a marketing program and a mini-tour for the artist. The winner of the program will be chosen in July, based on submissions to scionprospect.com.”

The Brand and Not-so Beautiful world that Toyota, Viacom’s MTV and Nickelodeon (see today’s Nick announcement), and so many, many others are creating ultimately makes everything in our world an extension of a brand message. Yes, I believe that hip-hop artists, video and online content producers, and journalists must be paid decently (and have the resources to do their work). But if music, childhood, and civic discourse are reduced to mere extensions of [perpetual] marketing campaigns, isn’t that a cynical and disturbing development? Yes, I believe so. Do we really want to develop a global culture where the public is forced to have never-ending relationships with brands and their messages?

Congressional Internet Caucus—–Break Your Special Interest Ties

Today’s column by Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum focusing on the sale of products and services at Congressional Internet Caucus events [“Soliciting for Good Citizens” reg. required] underscores why it’s time for the bi-partisan group to restructure its relationship with the Internet Education Foundation’s Advisory Committee.

This Congress is supposed to be breaking the ties between the powerful lobbying infrastructure and its political deliberations. Permitting the most powerful corporate media and telecom special interests to, in essence, determine the Caucus agenda is inappropriate (to say the least!). No group funded by the telecom and media industry should play a role as well in shaping the Caucus agenda. We hope the Net Caucus will clean house. Will Caucus co-chairs Senator Pat Leahy, Rep. Rick Boucher, and Rep. Robert Goodlatte do the right thing?