The Federal Trade Commission at “100”–A Serious Commitment to Protect Consumers is Required

This week, the FTC organized a “public roundtable” that is part of a process it calls “FTC at 100: Into Our Second Century.” Through panels and what it calls “self-assessment,” the FTC under its new chairman Bill Kovaciac has asked such questions as: “How well is the FTC fulfilling the destiny that Congress foresaw for it in 1914? What type of institution should it aspire to be when the Commission’s second century begins in 2014?”

But the two-day panel session illustrates what is wrong with the FTC. It is an agency generally afraid to represent the interests of consumers–think about the mortgage meltdown, skyrocketing oil and gas prices, and the lack of privacy online. The panels consist primarily of commission staff, former officials (who are now, given the FTC’s golden revolving door, primarily representing industry). There is only one consumer advocate (from CDT, which gets corporate funding) and one state AG official. There are a few academics, including those working at corporate-funded thinktanks. Participation by consumer groups and independent academic experts are simply not on the FTC’s agenda.

We have found the FTC to be a generally timid government agency–largely incapable of keeping up–let alone addressing on behalf of consumers–what industry is doing (especially with the areas I cover in digital communications ). There are good people at the agency, but they are tethered to a system that prevents consumer welfare from being truly protected.

A consumer-focused perspective–currently missing from the agency–would have included a serious discussion at this event by consumer advocates and academics who have actually studied and thought about the consumer movement in the U.S. The failure to do so reflects a serious failure by the FTC’s current leadership to ensure a broad and informed debate as it plans for the future.
The next FTC requires a chairperson and new commissioners who sees the agency’s mission working proactively on behalf of the public.

Online Advertising’s tracking and measuring metric–Engagement

Over the last few years, the global advertising industry has been working on a new way to measure the impact a marketing message has on individual consumers. “Engagement,” as its called, is an evolving concept–but it raises serious privacy and consumer protection concerns. Online advertisers are especially focused on the concept, as they sell access to users via online videos and other interactive services. In a recent issue of Marketing Week (UK), there was a useful definition of engagement via a letter to the editor. Since the mechanisms involving engagement–such as user tracking–need to be on the public interest radar screen, we thought it would be useful to cite the definition here [our italics]:
“The term engagement refers to the level of attention an ad draws from a user–weighting up how effectively it is in the real world. The measurement takes into account the overall interaction rate, which is a figure determined by the overall click-through rate, interaction with specific objects within the video and viral effects such as video sharing or emailing.”

From: “Interactive video ads increased engagement.” Letter by Irfon Watkins, Chief executive, Couli, Bristol. Marketing Week. July 10, 2008.

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.

Comcast is no longer a cable company, says Brian Roberts. It’s “a new products company”

Cable’s triple play is turning into a multi-dimensional effort designed to take advantage of its monopoly positions in cable TV and broadband (with mobile coming down the pike). Data collection and targeted advertising is on its agenda, as it is with phone company ISPs. Right now Comcast and other cable companies are working to build an interactive ad system— which raises all kinds of privacy, data collection, interactive marketing and consumer protection, and antitrust issues. This is no slow cable boat adrift on the digital sea, but a well-funded effort that–in part–is connected to Project Canoe. So we were not surprised when we saw this quote from Mr. Roberts during a February 2008 call with analysts: “Over the last few years we have successfully transformed Comcast from a cable company into a new products company that utilizes one infrastructure to deliver a growing number of products.”

Google’s EU Research: And the Brand Played On

Google’s ambitions to deliver for big brands includes paying for the kind of research that demonstrates its power to capture consumers. Google hired market researchers for a “pan-European” effort to “prove search can have a big impact on branding.” According to New Media Age, “[T]he findings…showed coming top of organic listings raised purchase consideration of a brand 4%… exposure to a listing in the top paid position, with no organic listing on the page, increased purchase consideration 20%. The findings provide advertisers with the most complete picture to date of how the entire online journey affects consumer buying… It found search has a positive effect on brand measures such as awareness, recall, brand affinity and even brand communication…

Henry Eccles, Google EMEA product marketing manager for its Market Insights team, said,… “We’ve seen the same lifts for all verticals, including FMCG, retail and technology, and all markets, so we believe this is brand, vertical and market agnostic”…

source: Google provides proof of search’s branding value. Will Cooper. NMA. July 10, 2008 [sub. required]

Why did Yahoo Tell SEC in 2007 that Google was biggest competitor, but now–with proposed new deal–it becomes its partner?

In its most recent 2007 SEC 10K, Yahoo listed Google as its primary competitor: “We face significant competition from large-scale Internet content, product and service aggregators, principally Google, Microsoft and AOL…. Google’s Internet search service directly competes with us for Affiliate and advertiser arrangements, both of which are key to our business and operating results.” But now, with this proposed arrangement, Yahoo’s former principal competitor is its partner. The same 2007 SEC report submitted by Yahoo also cited the development of its “Panama” search ad system as one of its major accomplishments.

When the Senate raises questions this week on the deal, it should ask Yahoo how it could tell the SEC and investors one thing–and then quickly reverse itself.

source: Yahoo Form 10K. Filed February 27, 2008. Available at:

Google/Yahoo deal and its impact on newspapers

One of the issues the Center for Digital Democracy has asked the Department of Justice to investigate is the impact of the proposed deal between Google and Yahoo and its impact on the already endangered newspaper business. Both Yahoo and Google provide online search ads or related services for the majority of the country’s newspapers. Analyzing how the pairing of Yahoo and Google may affect payments to newspaper publishers, and whether there may be the potential loss of competition, is necessary. Given the current financial pressure on newspapers, CDD urged ‘DoJ to examine the deal to address whether it will contribute to a loss in revenues necessary to ensure Americans have access to print-oriented news resources.” (It’s also interesting to note that Yahoo was reported in the trade press in February 2008 as seeing the potential of its newspaper ad platform to even compete with DoubleClick–which at the time was already acquired by Google

Google/YouTube/Viacom & Privacy: Everyone tracking our online video use

The stories on a judge’s order for Google to turn-over to Viacom data on YouTube users have largely ignored a key issue: why is Google–and almost every other leading broadband video provider tracking and analyzing our online viewing habits. It’s because–like with broadband generally and with television–the goal is to know exactly what we are viewing in order to better target us with advertising. In the case of broadband video, whether it is YouTube, Hulu, or Joost, for example, it’s about tracking our viewing so well we can be micro-targeted.

Google sees huge profits for YouTube doing this. They now call YouTube a “next-generation advertising platform,” something we think reflects how they really view the service. Google is pitching the branding and sellling of YouTube to advertisers. Google is now tracking YouTube views as it promotes to advertisers a scheme to take advantage of the “viral” marketing capabilities of YouTube. Finally, it’s also useful to consider how Google’s recently acquired DoubleClick also has a product tracking and analyzing broadband video. Users and policymakers should expect their online viewing will be private–and not to be spied upon. Whether by Viacom, the government, or Google itself.

Google’s online video clout bigger than the TV networks

Just a friendly reminder that the new media world is here–and that it should be the primary focus of public interest communications policy strategies. Via Variety (excerpt):

More signs of the Internet apocalypse for TV’s old guard: U.S. Web surfers viewed some 11 billion online videos in April, a gain of 33% from the same month last year.

According to just-released Web traffic stats from comScore, the most ominous stat is how ardently the next generation has taken to watching video on the Internet.

Online vid viewing is highest among 18- 34-year-olds, who averaged 287 minutes in April…And make no mistake, YouTube is CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox combined on the Internet.”
source: Net traffic signs suggest TV offramp: Web surfers ride YouTube, MySpace wave. Cynthia Littleton. Variety. June 23-29 2008 [print edition. sub required].