Interactive Ad Bureau to Congress and Public: If Your Privacy is Protected, The Internet Will Fail Like Wall Street!

It’s too disquieting a time in the U.S. to dismiss what a lobbyist for the Interactive Advertising Bureau said as merely silly. The IAB lobbyist is quoted in today’s Washington Post saying: “If Congress required ‘opt in’ today, Congress would be back in tomorrow writing an Internet bailout bill. Every advertising platform and business model would be put at risk.” [reg. required]

Why is the IAB afraid of honest consumer disclosure and consumer control? If online ad leaders can’t imagine a world where the industry still makes lots of money–while simultaneously respecting consumer privacy–perhaps they should choose another profession (say investment banking!).

Seriously, online ad leaders need to acknowledge that reasonable federal rules are required that safeguard consumers (with meaningful policies especially protecting children and adolescents, as well as adult financial, health, and political data). The industry doesn’t need a bail-out. But its leaders should `opt-in’ to a responsible position for online consumer privacy protection.

The IAB (US) “mobilizes” to Fight Against Consumer Protections for Online Media

Watch this online video of Randall Rothenberg speaking before a June Federated Media Publishing event. In Mr. Rothenberg’s worldview, demon critics of advertising (such as myself) are deliberately trying to undermine democratic digital media. This would be absurd, if it wasn’t so sad. Mr. Rothenberg is using scare tactics to whip up his members into a frenzy-all so they can fight off laws and regulations designed to provide consumers real control over their data and information. Luckily, Mr. Rothenberg will be on the losing side of this battle to protect consumers in the digital era. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic understand how the digital marketing ecosystem raises serious concerns about privacy and consumer welfare. We have to say we are disappointed in John Battelle, the CEO of Federated (who wrote a very good book entitled The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture). Mr. Battelle should know that the online marketing system requires a series of safeguards which protects citizens and consumers. There is a balance to be struck here. Online advertisers have unleashed some of the most powerful tools designed to track, analyze, and target individuals–whether on social networks, or watching broadband video, or using mobile devices. We have never said there shouldn’t be advertising. We understand the important role it must play, including for the underwriting of online content. But the online ad system should not be designed and controlled solely by ad networks, online publishers, trade groups and online ad lobbying groups. It must be structured in a way which promotes as much freedom for individuals.

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.

Google, Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner in coalition to fight state-based public interest and consumer protection issues

Scratch a media conglomerate–old or new–and you reveal a political agenda that is all about the aggrandizement of power–consumer and data privacy be damned. Here’s are excerpts from a Kate Kaye story on the roll-out of the state-based coalition designed to protect the interests of the online advertising industry.

From California to Utah to New York, state legislators regularly propose laws with major implications for the online ad industry. A once-loose collective of companies including Google, Yahoo, AOL and eBay finally incorporated officially this year after four years of collaborating to influence state policy.

The most recent target of the State Privacy and Security Coalition’s efforts is New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, sponsor of a bill preventing third parties from using sensitive personally identifiable information for behavioral ad targeting.

The coalition doesn’t like it. A missive sent to the legislator April 7 by the coalition’s lead counsel calls the bill “unnecessary,” and “most likely unconstitutional.”…Jim Halpert, partner in the communications, e-commerce and privacy practice at law firm DLA Piper, penned that letter. As head counsel for the coalition, he also recently facilitated its incorporation.

“There’s much more state activity than federal activity,” said Halpert. Not only does that create more laws or proposed laws to deal with; the state process moves much faster.

According to Halpert, the coalition also includes Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and organizations such as the Internet Alliance and tech trade association AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association. With Halpert at the helm, coalition members conduct weekly phone calls, and sometimes meet in-person with other members or with state lawmakers to influence legislation involving online privacy and data security, Internet advertising, online child safety, content liability, spam, spyware, and taxation…

“We see the coalition’s role as helping state legislatures understand the technology policy area. I think we all recognize the technology environment can be complicated,” said Adam Kovacevich, Google’s senior manager, global communications and public affairs. Google Director of State Public Policy John Burchett is the firm’s primary liaison to the coalition.”

source: Google, AOL and others make state policy coalition official. Kate Kaye. April 14, 2008

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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NYU Legal Ethics Expert Says FTC Chair Majoras should recuse in Google/Doubleclick review

Before we run this legal comment, we want to make something clear. This is about ensuring transparency and accountability in the process. It’s not about political ideology or trying to affect the outcome of a proceeding. There are standards that must be adhered to when one is serving the public (oh, and btw, the idea of disappearing web pages from the Jones Day website reflects, I suggest, their own ethical confusion as well). Here’s an important perspective from today’s Online Media Daily:

“Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School, maintains that there’s no question that Deborah Platt Majoras should recuse herself, regardless of whether Jones Day appeared before the FTC in the matter. John Majoras “stands to gain from the success of Jones Day, especially in a high-profile case like this and, therefore, her decision can affect his interest and therefore her interest,” Gillers said.”

“DoubleClick Law Firm Accused Of Concealing Involvement In Merger.” Wendy Davis. December 14, 2007

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The evolution of targeting users online (or, "Oh where oh where has our privacy gone")

An excerpt from a recent trade piece that should encourage reflection and concern (our emphasis):

“Today, we can not only target by the sites we think our customers frequent, we can follow them around the Web and target them based upon the other sites they actually visit. We can also target them based upon the words typed into a box, and from where those words are typed through search geo-targeting. We can also retarget searchers elsewhere on the Web. Facebook’s recent announcements take targeting to a whole new level, based upon age, location, interests, and other online activity.”

Source: “Search And Online Advertising: A Continual Evolution.” Ellen Siminoff. Search Insider. November 16, 2007

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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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The 700 MHz Auction: It’s about Online Advertising, Mobile Targeting, Commercialism and Threats to Privacy

We are glad Google is pushing a more open system for wireless. Cable and the phone monopoly want to run a closed shop. But we also believe that Google ultimately has the same business model in mind for wireless. Google wants access to more mobile spectrum so it can advance online advertising via data collection, profiling and one-to-one targeting. Missing in most of the debate about wireless is how can we ensure the U.S. public has access to non-commercial and community-oriented (and privacy-respectful) applications and services. There should be well-developed plans simultaneously advanced with the auction that will ensure the spectrum really serves the public interest (we see some have made such proposals). Such spectrum should be community-run and help stimulate a new generation of broadband public interest content and network services. But we fear that all that will happen is that Google and others will further transform what should be public property into a crazy maze of interactive [pdf] advertising-based content. This will further fuel a culture where personal consumption takes further precedence over the needs of civil society.

Youth Health Crisis: New Report on Digital Marketing of Food & Beverage Products

I co-authored a report released yesterday. For those concerned about the obesity crisis, it’s a useful resource. It also offers a good overview about the forces shaping the global media system. It’s available here.