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.

Google Buys More Lobbyists and Influence

excerpt from Washington Post: “…Google went on a hiring spree and now has 12 lobbyists and lobbying-related professionals on staff here — more than double the size of the standard corporate lobbying office — and is continuing to add people. Its in-house talent includes such veteran government insiders as communications director Robert Boorstin, a speechwriter and foreign policy adviser in the Clinton White House, and Jamie Brown, a White House lobbyist under President Bush.

Google has also hired some heavyweight outside help to lobby, including the Podesta Group, led by Democrat Anthony T. Podesta, and the law firm King & Spalding, led by former Republican senators Daniel R. Coats (Ind.) and Connie Mack (Fla.). To help steer through regulatory approvals in its proposed acquisition of DoubleClick, an online advertising company, Google recently retained the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.”

from: “Learning from Microsoft’s Error, Microsoft Builds a Lobbying Engine. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum. June 20, 2007

PS: And that’s before Johanna Shelton, former aide to Rep. John Dingell and FCC Commissioner Adelstein, starts working for Google on Monday!

News Corp. execs are hyping what its MySpace will do to the U.S. political process. As reported by TechNewsWorld, MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe said that “As the country’s most trafficked Web site, MySpace will play a powerful role in the upcoming election. Our digital candidate banners will be the yard signs of the 21st Century and our political viral videos and vlogs are the campaign ads of the future.” In discussing its new electoral “Impact Channel,” DeWolfe said it would “empower politicians, nonprofits and civic organizations to connect with MySpace users around the world…”

Missing from such self-serving promotional proclamations is what MySpace intends to charge candidates and campaigns for access. We assume it will eventually impose the same rate charges that big advertisers have to pay for branded profiles. Absent too, is any information about what MySpace will do with all the data it collects from its “Impact Channel” and related political marketing traffic. Will News Corp. make the data available for sale to competing interests, or provide politically favored politicians with special insights about online behavior?

These and many other questions need to be raised and vetted now–by the candidates, MySpace/Fox Interactive/News Corp. and, especially, those who care about the future of U.S. political communications.

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The [Growing & Never-Ending] Privatization of Online Space

As online viewership concentrates on key platforms and “community” services, the role which marketing and big money is playing to shape the digital media experience should be a focal point of debate. YouTube, for example, notes this week’s Advertising Age, “is doing custom campaigns for major brands that cost about $750,000 a pop; housing dedicated channels for marketers and, yes, some content players that can run up to $500,000; and front-and-center home-page positioning with its four “director’s placement” spots, which cost about $50,000.” [sub required. “Did Google Flush $1.6 b Down the YouTube?” Matthew Creamer. March 18, 2007].
We think the prevailing ideology that online communications must be thoroughly “monetized” is troubling, and raises key public interest concerns. What will the spiraling costs for effacious YouTube access mean for non-profit groups, issue campaigns, and independent political candidates? Will we repeat the same business model for political communications in the U.S. with digital media that we have for television? Will big, special interest money be required to really attract attention. I believe that the changing nature of the digital medium will eventually make the notion that a stand-alone “viral” video can be a major agent of social change an endangered species.

Online Targeted Political Ads and the White House: Will the Candidates Protect our Privacy?

Yahoo!, Google, and even “adver-gaming” types are lining up to “connect candidates with potential voters,” notes a story today in the Washington Post [“Online Firms Boot Up for Political Campaigns.” reg. required]. Google and others sponsored an event organized by the George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet.

We believe the evolution of political advertising to embrace the online mediums of broadband PC, mobile devices, and interactive television raises a series of fundamental concerns. First, candidates should not be given or collect the vast amounts of personal information about us that Yahoo!, Google, AOL and everyone else routinely collects. Candidates should not allow “cookies” to be placed on our computers which relate to their campaigns—without prior informed consent. There is a treasure trove of data that can help candidates target their messages. But we believe without informed and prior consent, the voting public is at risk in having personal and other data be used by candidates in a manipulative and unfair way.

Two, candidates require free access to all platforms. We run the risk of migrating the current “it takes big money to make a real impact” system we have with broadcasting to the digital realm. Gatekeepers—such as AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Google and Yahoo!—will be able to charge premium prices. We want new media to fix the problems we have with today’s system, where the requirements of having to raise vast sums of money ultimately empowers the permanent elite interest class.

The presidential campaign should be a litmus test on the candidates and personal privacy online. Reform advocates should also begin calling for “free time” to all the new online media distribution system. As the campaign progresses, this blog will not only follow the money, but the data sales as well.

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Bill Keller of the NY Times Needs a Journalistic Reality Check

It’s hard to fathom why Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, would respond this way to their public editor about the paper’s failure to quickly follow-up on the Post’s investigation of the Walter Reed/veteran health care scandal: “Until we verify — or until the story begins to have consequences — it’s second-hand information,” he wrote in an email. There were other reasons Keller gave as well, including pulling off reporters working on some other enterprise story in order to play catch-up. Keller also said that “News organizations are habitually slow at responding to stories broken elsewhere… The easy explanation, and one that contains a good measure of truth, is pride…Reporters (and editors) don’t enjoy being beaten.”

But is Keller really saying that when a serious news organization or journalist from a competing outlet documents a story of critical importance, the reaction should be ignoring it (as the Times did for a number of days with the Post’s Walter Reed story)? Keller needs to re-examine how his paper responds to news reported elsewhere. The failure of the Times to adequately challenge the false Bush Administration assertions that led to this tragic war will always, sadly, be part of the paper’s journalistic legacy. Keller and executives at the Times need to acknowledge immediately other key stories from competing news organizations–and then advance the story even further. We need more vibrant journalistic analysis and reporting. Ignoring competing news stories is bad for the public interest and is a foolish journalistic practice.

Source: “Reporting the News Even When a Competitor Gets There First.” Byrone Calame. New York Times. March 11, 2007. Reg. may be required.

Will Arianna Huffington tell Madison Ave. to first serve the Public Interest?

Ms. Huffington will be a keynote speaker at Advertising Age’s “360 degree Media” conference on March 21. The editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post will share the podium that day with Yahoo’s Terry Semel and other marketing executives. We hope Ms. Huffington will warn the online ad industry that its aggressive moves to track all of our digital behaviors– so they can create a variety of desired actions (“conversions”)– raise fundamental questions about privacy. Ms. Hufffington should boldy challenge their plans to manipulate consumers through the “always-on, always-being branded to” interactive media machine that has been developed. Lastly, Ms. Huffington should especially urge advertisers to rein-in messages and campaigns promoting consumption. It’s time advertisers owned up to their own role which contributes to global warming. Ms. Huffington’s Post has a real opportunity to be a model for responsible interactive advertising–where privacy, a “green” ethos,” and a pro-civic engagement commitment–shape the message and the marketing.

Backing Further U.S. Media Consolidation: State Pension Funds, Foundations and Universities Help Providence Equity Partners New $12b Shopping Spree

Compounding problems with media consolidation is the role that private equity firms are playing buying major media, telecom and advertising properties. We are not only ending up with fewer owners of key newspapers, stations, networks, channels, and digital portals—but these private firms are even more unaccountable to the public. That’s why its disturbing to learn that what has been described as one of the largest funds to buy up media properties—the new Providence Equity Partners VI fund–is financially backed in part by groups which should know better. Investors of the new media merger fund include state pension funds, university endowments and private foundations (in addition to contributions from other pension funds, “high-net-worth” individuals and “funds of funds”). These investors are partnering with Providence’s plan to see more media properties are swallowed up. But likely missing from such buy-outs is any commitment to the public interest, let alone serious support for journalism. Ironically, foundations, unions, and a few university leaders have been part of the “media reform” effort combating further consolidation of “old media” and also working to restore “network neutrality” for U.S. broadband.

Former FCC Chair Michael K. Powell is a senior advisor at Providence, another irony (especially if any of the pension or foundation investment comes from groups backing the public interest media effort). Providence, as we’ve noted previously, has sought to acquire Clear Channel and Tribune. Its new fund will enable it to acquire more cable and other holdings, likely making it a fierce opponent of the effort to ensure broadband cable and phone networks are required to operate in a non-discriminatory manner.

We hope that there will be some serious soul-searching in the foundation, union, and pension investment community. More is at stake than a good return on a dollar. It’s the future of free expression, democratic participation, and civil rights.