MSN’s Holiday Challenge: Using Sweepstakes to Collect Your Data for Uncle Bill. Not Santa

The new sweepstakes run by Microsoft’s MSN unit–Holiday Challenge [‘Win Up to $50,000]–is emblematic of one of the key ways online marketers collect your personal and related data. Hey, they say. `Wanna win some big bucks?’ Just fill out the form to play. They assume, natch, that you won’t be clued in to the data collection and branding game going on. They don’t make much of the lifeless link which takes you to its privacy “Highlights” page (you have to click again after that if you want to reach the full privacy policy pages). Once enrolled in the game, Microsoft will be able to learn about your behavior online at various MSN pages–all the while you have to endure rich media/search engine pitches for products.

Microsoft, we know, is now seeking to develop a business model for the always-on era. Selling software can no longer cut it as a steady and significant revenue source. But Microsoft should do this in a way that makes it the corporate leader fostering privacy online–as well as supporting content and culture that enriches democracy. Its new sweepstakes ploy reveals a cynical lack of both imagination and commitment to do something better.

Follow the Data—N.Y.Times Overlooks

Today’s business story on Microsoft’s online business honcho Steve Berkowitz over-looked a key critical dimension with what is really going on at that company. Microsoft is now focused on interactive advertising–and data collection–as a primary source of revenue. Microsoft has turned every bit of itself into a system that serves the needs of its adCenter [Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions]. As we explained recently in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, Microsoft’s bundling of search, rich media, user-generated content (blogs, videos), email, instant messenger, etc. to help collect the data used for advertising microtargeting is on the cutting-edge of what threatens consumer privacy, in the U.S. and everywhere else.

We hope that the news media will look closely at its own operations as its relates to interactive marketing and privacy. Everyone, including the New York Times, is engaged in interactive data collection and ad schemes that threaten our privacy. Perhaps if business reporters, editorial boards, and executive producers were willing to cast a critical eye at themselves in this regard, we would have business stories that got to the core of what is driving e-commerce today.

“Looking for a Gambit To Win at Google’s Game.” Saul Hansell, NYT. 12/9/06

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CDT Works to Undermine the Public Interest in Broadband/ Allies with PFF

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) has long served as part of the political support system for the telecom and media industries. While many view CDT as a privacy group, a great deal of what the organization does benefits its corporate supporters—which have been some of the biggest media and data collection companies in the country. They have included Axciom, Doubleclick, Time Warner, AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google and Intel.

Now, CDT has joined forces with one of the key corporate funded groups that has been leading the charge against network neutrality: the Progress and Freedom Foundation. PFF, co-founded by Newt Gingrich, is also supported by numerous corporate media/telecom interests, including Murdoch’s News Corp. (Fox), AT&T, BellSouth, Comcast, Clear Channel, GE/NBC, Google and Microsoft.

Yesterday, the two groups jointly filed amicus briefs in federal courts supporting News Corp./Fox and NBC’s efforts to undermine the ability of the FCC to regulate communications. The TV networks are fighting the FCC’s recent decisions on broadcast indecency. But the CDT/PFF filing wasn’t only about over-turning the FCC’s foolhardy and inappropriate efforts on so-called indecent content. The message CDT and PFF gave to the courts was they should rein in any effort by the FCC to ensure that the public interest be served in the digital media era. The filing claims that convergence of various media, including the Internet, make any policy role for the FCC related to diversity of content a threat to free speech itself. A very convenient argument that must warm the hearts of both CDT’s and PFF’s corporate funders, because they are precisely the companies who wish to avoid having a public interest regulatory regime in broadband.

Missing from the brief is any discussion of the regulatory areas for broadband (including PC, mobile, and digital TV [IPTV] platforms) that will require federal policy, including a key role for the FCC. Among them, ensuring an open, non-discriminatory content distribution policy for the Internet—network neutrality. Other rules that will require FCC action in the broadband era include ensuring “free” and “equal” time for political speech; diversity of content ownership, including by women and persons of color; localism; public service; privacy; and advertising regulation. There will need to be ad safeguards, for example, protecting children from interactive marketing that promotes obesity as well as with prescription drug ads targeting seniors via immersive “one-to-one” media techniques.

CDT and PFF argue that the new media environment provides the public with greater choice, another reason they urge the courts to limit FCC authority. But what’s really happening with digital media is that we are facing a system where the “choices” are being meaningfully reduced by the market. Wherever the public goes, the forces of conglomerate media and advertising will confront them. Consider, for example, News Corp.‘s MySpace now running Fox programming. (It’s interestingly, by the way, that neither CDT nor PFF told the courts that they have a financial relationship with some of the interests involved in the indecency debate).

We have long opposed FCC efforts to “regulate” indecency, including being critical of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (whom we otherwise strongly admire). The indecency effort by the FCC has helped let it become vulnerable to this attack by the media conglomerates, and their supporters, who have a longstanding political agenda aimed at sweeping away all regulation and safeguards. Fox, NBC, Viacom, Disney and the rest want a U.S. media system where they can own as many media outlets as they want, not have to do any public service, nor worry about regulators concerned about threats to privacy and interactive marketing abuses.

The emerging broadband era in the U.S. will see us face further consolidation of ownership of media outlets, including the Internet, as well as an increase in overall commercialization. The cry that Wall Street has for broadband is “monetization.” But our electronic media system must also serve democracy—not just the interests of those who want to make money. Civic participation, public interest civic media, and safeguards from content and services designed to manipulate us must be addressed. There is a role for the FCC in all this. (We shouldn’t throw-out as “bathwater” the potential of our broadband media to serve democracy and a role for the FCC because we are upset about it catering to zealous social conservatives who don’t like some programming).

Finally, shame on CDT for joining up with PFF. PFF is an opponent of the network neutrality policy for the Internet. It has also long opposed any meaningful role for the FCC. But, perhaps that’s the point. If PFF gets it way, its backers–and many of CDT’s–will be free to do as they please, regardless of the consequences to our democracy.

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Online Ad and Data Collection Watch

My group has launched a new project to keep the public better informed about the latest threats to our privacy. Click here to visit Online AdWatch. It will regularly highlight new developments in the interactive ad marketplace across the PC, mobile, and digital TV platforms. Send me your favorite examples of technologies, applications and market strategies that should be included.

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Microsoft’s Massive Interactive Ad Venture (with a editorial reminder for the Washington Post)

Bill and Melinda Gates receive just praise for their eponymous charitable foundation. But like so many other philanthropists, the money comes via disreputable practices. Little is ever mentioned when discussing the Gates Foundation that its resources were built on a coldly executed monopolistic business strategy. The European Commission is still trying to undo the impact of Microsoft’s monopoly. Like many other robber barons turned philanthropist, perhaps Mr. Gates has made a later-in-one’s life conversion. He is now widely viewed—by the press and others—as a saint, not a sinner.

But Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Massive—the leading provider of online advertising for video games—illustrates his company’s continued lack of a moral vision. Massive sells to a wide array of advertisers and marketers the eyeballs—and really the subconscious minds—of teens and other gamers. Video games become populated with all kinds of commercial messages to help push the marketing goals of “Entertainment, Automotive, Telecom, Packaged Goods, Technology and Retail,” explains Massive. These ads are placed before users in “real-time” and can be readily updated and revised to suit an advertisers marketing strategy. You can be sure users are tracked and profiled.

Here’s what Massive also tells advertisers: “Massive’s patent-pending ad serving technology and unique ad units guarantee that advertisers get precise, measurable exposure in their campaign. The dynamic nature of the Massive Network gives advertisers the opportunity to target gamers with different messages based upon geography and time of day. The advertising creative and campaign can be highly customized and changed quickly to meet evolving market conditions and brand priorities. Ad messages are customized to contextually fit each game environment and then served to locations within the game that are pre-selected by Massive and the game’s creative developers.”

“Types of ad units include (but are not limited to):

* Billboards and Posters
* Vehicles
* Pizza Boxes
* Soda Cans
* Screensavers
* TV Screens”

Microsoft is currently engaged in a desperate effort to catch up to Yahoo! and Google in the interactive advertising game. Massive is seen as a prime way to extend the software giant’s interactive ad clout. But, by facilitating the ability of marketers to encourage young people and others to consume more beer, pizza, and fattening soft drinks, Microsoft is making an unhealthy and inappropriate contribution to our culture. It won’t do the public any good if—say twenty years from now—Bill and Melinda Gates begin suddenly spending foundation money to combat obesity-related illnesses. They would have already helped encouraged millions of game users to identify with such products.

This week’s announcement that Microsoft’s Massive will be distributing Electronic Arts (EA) games for its Xbox, including “first person shooter” Battlefield 2142, is a good illustration why folks working for Gates should hide their heads in shame. Here’s what an EA executive said about the deal: “Consumers are increasingly engaged in deep, virtual worlds and advertisers need adapted ways to reach these audiences.”

Oy Vey!

And now for the Washington Post. The news article [9/1/06] reporting on the EA deal was very polite—and didn’t explore much the concerns over Microsoft’s use of interactive ads for games. Perhaps that’s because folks know that Melinda Gates is on the board of the Washington Post Company. Post Co. reporters and editors always need to disclose their corporate connection to Microsoft and the Gates family.

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Will "Expanded" Microsoft/Verizon Alliance Spell Problems for Net Neutrality?

We await to see if Microsoft continues to play a leadership role in the battle for Internet Freedom now that it has expanded its broadband business dealings with Verizon (including a “co-branded portal”). With the upcoming Senate vote, now’s a crucial time for action. If Microsoft doesn’t play an serious leadership role backing network neutrality legislation, it will reflect poorly on the legacy of Bill Gates. Will this deal with Verizon mean a Microsoft pull-back from the issue?

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