Google as “media company” & favoring its own sites–a report from a search engine trade show

John Battelle was on a panel at the recent Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference in New York. Here’s an excerpt from his blog post–which I hope you will read in full [our emphasis]: Google’s brand promise – to be neutral, to be above monetary interest – is in conflict with, well, the rest of Google’s brand promise, to be a superstar stock, to grow faster than any company in the history of the world. And all of that is in conflict with …. Google’s brand promise, to get consumers to the best answer, fastest, regardless of who owns the content. Because…sometimes, that content is now owned by Google…Why when you search for stocks does Google Finance come first? Let’s be honest here. It’s not because some neutral algorithm chose Google Finance. It’s because Google owns that data. Google’s representative admitted as much on our panel today. And, given that, can one reasonably ask why, according to Comscore’s data, the preponderance of results that come up in Google’s universal search are YouTube? Might it be because they are they best results? Sure. Might it also be because Google owns YouTube, which is madly trying to monetize the second, third, and fourth click with new models that it hopes to heck are going to pay off?

Bravo for New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and his Privacy Bill Protecting Consumers Online

New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky understands that the digital marketing industry–aided and abetted by too many complicit online publishers–have created a system unfair to consumers. Our data is continually harvested as we are monitored online (and soon via cell phones and even TV). Ad servers take our information about the pages we visit, the shopping carts we use or abandon, the search terms we use (think health, mortgages, etc.), the videos we watch or click off–and much more–so we can be profiled, tracked across the Web, targeted, and then confronted with a variety of marketing messages all designed to have us change our behaviors (to like this product or that, feel someway about a brand, engage in a purchase, or a relationship–including giving up even more personal info). Our data becomes the key part of what the online ad industry calls a “Marketing & Media Ecosystem.” But if we don’t have serious privacy and consumer protections, this “ecosystem” will erode our privacy, consumer rights, and help undermine the role of the Internet as a democratic medium of discourse.

The lobbyists at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (whose board includes Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, the New York Times, Comcast, AT&T, News Corp/Fox) make the spurious claim that Brodsky’s bill (and similar privacy proposals) threaten the Internet–because, they argue, such safeguards would reduce the advertising that supports much of online content. That is absurd. No one is saying there can’t be advertising–we are just saying it needs to be done ethically. The public requires a digital media system that empowers the individual. Let each person decide what kind of data can be collected and how it can be used (after carefully–but concisely– explaining the consequences of micro-targeting). There should be real limits on how long the data can be retained as well.

The real “ecology” for the future of online communications is a healthy balance between commercial and ad supported ventures and a vibrant public sphere. The IAB is relying on tired lobbyist phrasebook warnings about threats to the Internet if advertising has to abide by consumer protection rules. Frankly, we are amazed that the IAB–with its membership representing most of the major online publishers–can’t adopt a more statesperson-like approach.

Mr. Brodsky’s bill needs to be strengthened, so consumers are empowered to decide what data can be collected, via an opt-in system. It must also protect New York residents from the egregious data collection excesses that we have witnessed with the online mortgage and financial sector, and the emerging health information field. So Bravo to Assemblyman Brodsky for his leadership role in helping protect consumers from a digital marketplace that has evolved based on the unfair and deceptive system of interactive data collection.

AOL’s Privacy “Penguins”–Time Warner Skating on [Very] Thin Consumer Protection Ice

The senior management over at Time Warner must be `in treatment’ with some of their Looney Toon characters. How else to explain the ludicrous use of cartoon penguins that will soon be deployed to really misinform consumers about how and why their data and personal information are being collected and harvested for microtargeting purposes. It’s really shameful that the Time Warner, its Platform A targeting service, and the AOL division are hiding behind these well-liked creatures. But they are doing so because the company doesn’t want to be honest with its users. What Time Warner should be telling consumers are some of the things it pitches to perspective and current advertisers. For example, it should tell consumers that they are being tracked and followed online so advertisers will know they are “demonstrating a specific behavior.” Or that it’s “an advertisers dream–the ability to target consumers…across thousands of websites…[while they] research their options…Through behavioral targeting–and retargeting–we keep your brand top of mind during this crucial consideration phase.” Or that when we are watching online video, Time Warner informs advertisers that it can tell them “[H]ow long did consumers view your ad? Did they visit your website as a result? Better yet, did they visit your store? Online video takes the best of TV and the best of online to create the ultimate solution–high-impact advertising with measurable results.”

Or that it can help them get “leads” for future pitches (think mortgage loans, etc). Will AOL’s Penguin say that it will give marketers “a high-volume” of leads that will “convert into an actual customer…that perform best for your goals.” Or that it can identify our behaviors and then place us for sale as part of consumers profiles to be targeted (such as whether they consider us to be a “Traveler, Health Seeker, Entertainment Buff, Auto Intender or Trendy Homemaker”), which include information about whether we have children at home, how much money we make, or our gender? I hope our Penguin will be telling consumers (and the FTC and the EU’s Article 29 Working Group) that its “insight Reports” provide marketers with “deep knowledge” [our emphasis] “[B]y combining TACODA behavioral segments with comScore’s MediaMetrix® database of online consumer demographics, Web site visitation patterns, and eCommerce buying power index, TACDOA is able to discover previously unknown key behavioral traits that may be non-intuitive and even counterintuitive behaviors. Our pre and post campaign analyses will help you identify your strategically important audiences in a snap.”

When asked to testify before Congress, as it debates privacy safeguards, we hope Time Warner’s Penguin will be able to explain its “Audience Point” service, which promises advertisers that they will be able to “[R]each the right audience….without waste…the first precision targeting solution giving audiences direct interaction with their likely customers.” Or that Time Warner, via, promises to “helps you reach your site visitors after they exit your site – reinforcing your brand positioning and driving users back to your site to complete a desired action. – converting browsers into buyers, and buyers into repeat buyers.”

Time Warner and the online ad industry have to be honest with consumers and citizens. They shouldn’t engage in playing games when it comes to protecting privacy. Here’s the real penguin Time Warner and AOL should be using:

The Penguin, as seen in Detective Comics

The EC approval of Google’s DoubleClick takeover

Statement on the EC Decision on Google/DoubleClick
Jeff Chester, Center for Digital Democracy

By failing to impose safeguards, EC regulators have helped strengthen a growing digital colossus that will now be in a dominant position to shape much of the global future of the Internet and other online media. The EC [DG Comp] appears to have embraced the FTC’s flawed analysis of the online ad market. It represents the failure of antitrust regulators to understand and respond to the growing consolidation of control over online ad delivery, data collection, and the funding of content. This decision will have profound and unfortunate consequences for the Internet’s evolving role as a democratic communications medium.

EU and US antitrust regulators have also perversely set the stage for Microsoft’s goal of acquiring Yahoo!, furthering more concentration of control in the new media sector. Instead of ensuring competition, DG Comp and the FTC have literally paved the way for the emergence of a global digital duopoly over online advertising (which is the principal way online content is funded). By permitting Google to dramatically grow in clout, regulators will have to likely enable the further growth of a # 2 competitor to Google—which will be Microsoft.

US and European policymakers must reform the antitrust process to reflect the realities of the digital market era, where competition, data collection, and content creation are seamlessly intertwined. In today’s digital marketplace, the company that controls the most data about consumers and has the global reach to connect to them raises both anticompetitive and privacy concerns. An antiquated and piecemeal antitrust approach fails to protect citizens, consumers, and competition.

The Center for Digital Democracy, which opposed the Google/DoubleClick merger in both the U.S. and in the EC, will continue to press policymakers to play a more responsible forward-thinking approach to competition and consumer protection for online and interactive media.

The emerging online health field requires meaningful privacy and interactive marketing safeguards to prevent the exploitation of American consumers. Google, Microsoft and many others see digital gold from the online targeting of medical-related products & services. There will be a flood of personalized pitches from the Big Pharma brands, health remedies, and over-the counter remedies. Yesterday, CDT sent out an email saying that “[N]ext week the Center for Democracy & Technology will announce a major health privacy initiative that will emerge as the major player in this converging field, poised to stand in the gap, bringing providers, industry and consumers to the table to build workable solutions and impact policy makers.” The CDT missive explained that “[A]ddressing these issues requires a strong, credible voice, that combines privacy and technology expertise with a deep understanding of the health care system and the goals for information technology; a voice with privacy policy experience and an understanding of how technology can be used to improve health care.”

The health of the American public in the digital era will be directly connected to the policies we enact governing medical micro-targeting, data collection, and online marketing. Groups have to stand up for what is right for consumers. The new CDT effort–along with the online health data and marketing initiatives–will require close scrutiny. Protecting health-related privacy and ensuring safeguards for digital medical advertising are essential if we are going to engage in prevention.

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