Why Google Can’t Say a Word that Starts With “P”—Privacy

The senior execs and DC lobbying team at Google really have a major problem addressing one of the company’s gravest problems–its lack of leadership protecting consumer/citizen privacy. While Google claims to reporters and others it’s been proactively strengthening its privacy policies, most of the changes have come as a result of pressure from policymakers and privacy advocates.

This week, Google released a booklet which “spelled out…2009 policy priorities” for the new Administration and Congress, including several Internet related issues. The booklet’s release coincided with a speech Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. Missing from the booklet’s agenda was any discussion of privacy or the role and structure of online advertising (You would never know, for example, that Google was just forced by the Department of Justice’s antitrust division to drop its proposed deal with leading rival Yahoo!).

Google should be playing a leadership role supporting the enactment of serious privacy rights for the public–including “opt-in,” real transparency, user control, limits on retention, etc. If Google believes its golden digital goose will be baked once consumers better understand and control how they are being profiled and targeted, they should examine how it defines corporate social responsibility. But Google’s current approach—we can’t admit we are collecting your data for interactive marketing and cannot even say the word privacy in public-– will ultimately have consequences for Google’s future–including its share price.

New AT&T-funded “Future of Privacy” Group: Will it Support Real Privacy Protection or Serve as a Surrogate for Self-regulation and Data Collection?

A new group co-directed by former DoubleClick and AOL chief privacy officer Jules Polonetsky, called the “Future of Privacy Forum,” has been announced. It is connected to the law firm representing AT&T–Proskauer Rose–which has a considerable practice in the online marketing and data collection area. Other backers include Intel, General Electric, IBM and Wal-Mart.

We are concerned, however, that the role of the Forum is to help discourage Congress from enacting an opt-in regime for data collection. Both ISPs–such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner–as well as online advertising companies such as Google/DoubleClick, Yahoo, and Microsoft must be governed by privacy laws which empower and protect consumers. The role of ISPs in any data collection for targeted online marketing, in particular, requires serious analysis and stringent safeguards. AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Comcast, the online ad networks, and social media marketers (to name a few) must be required to provide meaningful disclosure, transparency, accountability and user control (with special rules governing health, financial and data involving children and youth). Self-regulation has failed. If the Future of Privacy group is to have any legitimacy, it will work to support serious federal rules. But if it trots out some sort of voluntary code of conduct as a way to undermine the growing call for real privacy safeguards, this new group may soon be viewed as beholden to its funders and backers.

Google’s Eric Schmidt’s Bluster Against Antitrust Regulators: A Failure to Live Up to His Convictions?

In today’s New York Times, Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggests that everyone other than Google is confused, ignorant, or incorrect about how the search giant operates its online ad business. It seems in his worldview, no one–not certainly the Department of Justice–should have raised a finger of concern over its proposed alliance with Yahoo. Schmidt told the Times yesterday that “We canceled the deal with about one hour to go before a lawsuit was going to be filed against our deal. We concluded after a lot of soul-searching that it was not in our best interest to go through a lengthy and costly trial which we believe we ultimately would have won.”

If Mr. Schmidt really believed that he was right and everyone else was incorrect, he should have stood up and fought–instead of jilting Yahoo just as they were about to be conjoined. However, we believe that Google choose to abandon the deal because it didn’t want to further open itself to regulatory review–which would have demonstrated why its Yahoo deal would have been bad for competition and privacy.

Google Expanding its Online Video Advertising via Rich Media Applications and Commissions to Ad Agencies

Along with its new research fund for academics and its work to harness neuromarketing, Google is now luring more advertisers to run ads on YouTube and its content network. Here’s an excerpt from the UK’s New Media Age [a terrific] trade publication: “Google is to introduce agency commission for video advertising to encourage increased investment and progress within the sector. The company says it will launch an “incentivisation programme” to show Google’s commitment in developing video advertising opportunities across its network, including YouTube…Google is… also working with rich-media specialist Tangozebra, which it acquired as part of the DoubleClick deal, to develop new ad formats…

Jonathan Gillespie, Google head of media solutions and YouTube in the UK, said, “We believe that online video specifically is going to be the next stage of evolution in the display marketplace.”

source: Google to introduce agency commission on video ads. Will Cooper. NMA. October 31, 2008

Google Using Brain Research to Hone its Online Ads

Google has joined the stampede of advertisers who have embraced the tools of neuroscience to help them create the emerging generation of interactive ads. In the new model for marketing, the goal is to bypass our conscious, more rational, decision-making. They want to reach deeply into our emotional, unconscious, self. Hence, the gaggle of companies helping marketers with brain research. Google, by the way, is using the same company that recently tested how junk food ads affected consumer brains during the recent Olympic games. Neurofocus, the Berkeley-based company partnering with Google, won a major ad award for its help harnessing neuroscience to sell Frito-Lay chips. The growing role of neuroscience research for advertising (especially digital marketing) must be addressed by policymakers, health professionals, and other responsible parties. Here’s the Mediaweek excerpt:

“Google is so confident that its InVideo Ads product—those semi-transparent/animated overlay ads it launched on YouTube last year—are game changers that the company is turning to brain wave researchers to prove their effectiveness.

The search giant–in conjunction with MediaVest–has partnered with NeuroFocus, a researcher that specializes in biometrics, to gauge both how users respond to InVideo ads and how well those ads complement traditional banner ads. NeuroFocus specializes in measuring individuals’ brain response—by literally placing sensors on their heads—as well as other factors like pupil dilation and skin response.

“We were really interested in looking at what we think of as a pretty innovative ad unit,” explained Leah Spalding, advertising research manager, Google, who emphasized that since InVideo ads are designed to be non-intrusive, they warrant an evaluation that goes beyond traditional measures like click-through rates. “Standard metrics don’t tell the whole story…Specifically, after fielding a study among 40 participants last May, InVideo ads scored above average on a scale of one to 10 for measures like “attention” (8.5), “emotional engagement” (7.3) and “effectiveness” (6.6). According to officials, a 6.6 score is considered strong.

source: “Google, MediaVest Tap Biometrics for InVideo Ads Play.” Mike Shields. Mediaweek. October 23, 2008.

and more on the research via Mediapost: “…the NeuroFocus research conducted in May looked at the reactions of 40 people to YouTube InVideo overlay and companion banner ads from a cross-section of MediaVest advertising clients.

The firm used biometric measures such as brainwave activity, eye-tracking and skin response to gauge the impact of ads. Based on criteria including attention level, emotional engagement and memory retention, it then comes up with an overall “effectiveness” score for ads.”

“Google: This is your brain on advertising.” Mark Walsh. Mediapost. Oct. 23, 2008

PS: Google has been holding research discussions on such topics as “The Neuroscience of Emotions [Sept. 16, 2008]. Here’s the link to a presentation via YouTube.

Here’s another on computational neuroscience by a researcher who works on online advertising.

Google’s Net Vision: “take the TV experience and provide it on the Web”

As online advertising companies such as Google import the TV ad model into the online experience, what will be the consequences: to content diversity, public interest programming, sustainable lifestyles, etc.? We have our own opinion, and it should be part of a growing debate on the future of the digital media system. Here’s a glimpse of Google’s vision and its new “Branded Entertainment” division, via an article in Fast Company [November 2008]. Our bold.

excerpt: [Seth] MacFarlane’s management team went out and signed him up with Google. The resulting “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy”…shorts are also distributed in an innovative way: targeting young males where they lurk by popping up in ad windows on sites such as Maxim.com and Fandango.com (while simultaneously appearing on YouTube). “The idea is not to drive someone to a Web site but to make content available wherever the audience will be,” explains Dan Goodman, president of digital at MRC [Media Rights Capital]… MacFarlane’s status as an equity partner in the deal entitles him to split the ad revenue with Google and MRC…MRC provides the funding and sells the ad partnerships, MacFarlane provides the content, and Google serves as distribution outlet, providing the “broadcast” via its AdSense network. Then all three split the proceeds…Each Cavalcade short carries a single advertiser. The first 10 were bought by Burger King…

For Burger King, the appeal was obvious. “Seth’s fan base intersects squarely with our audience of young men and women,” says Brian Gies, vice president of marketing impact for Burger King. In other words, MacFarlane’s comedy provides a very powerful and friendly connection to a very targeted audience, one that tends to get the munchies. Says Google’s Levy: “We know where to find them, and we’re putting the advertising in an environment they’re comfortable in.”

“The idea is to take the TV experience and provide it on the Web,” says Alex Levy, Google’s director of branded entertainment. “But brought to the people you want to reach, when, where, and how you want to reach them.” For a company that likes to say it’s not in the content business, that’s a remarkable statement. Google, in essence, is trying to use its ad-distribution network to turn content distribution upside down.”

Seth MacFarlane’s $2 Billion Family Guy Empire. Josh Dean. Fast Company. Oct. 13, 2008

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.

Google Policy Blog Fails to Address Yahoo! Deal & Threat to Competition & Privacy

Google’s post today by Tim Armstrong on why its proposed deal with Yahoo! isn’t a competition problem attempts to weave and spin this critical issue. It’s very revealing as well about Google’s own failure to develop into a company which honestly engages in self-examination and reflection. As one can see from the current melt-down of the financial markets, making money shouldn’t be the sole motivation for behavior. Google should have been able to acknowledge that a major deal with its leading search competitor raises serious questions worthy of broad debate and critical analysis.

The failure of Google to respond to the concerns raised by the World Association of Newspapers this week is reflective of this. Newspapers and content publishers are rightly worried about ensuring a diversity of funding sources for the production of news and other information necessary for a democratic society. It’s not as simple as Google’s Tim Armstrong (who wrote today’s post) suggests, that this deal with give consumers “relevant ads” and help keep Yahoo afloat as a robust competitor. In fact, Armstrong and Google, we believe, aren’t being candid here. When an online ad company dismantles (or turns over) a core part of its search function to its leading competitor, it becomes fatally wounded. As Google knows all well, search and display (and online content) are all intertwined. Yahoo’s future, in my opinion, as a full service online ad company is endangered, as more businesses realize that its search ad business relies increasingly on Google.

There are many troubling privacy issues with this deal, something Mr. Armstrong tries to dismiss by saying that [our emphasis]: “[W]e have taken steps in the Yahoo! agreement to make sure that neither company has access to personally identifiable user information from the other company.” But that leaves open an array of personal data collection points, such as cookies, IP addresses, and other statistical analysis online related data. (The failure, by the way, for the privacy issues of the proposed deal to be investigated by the FTC and Congress, is also disturbing).

Mr. Armstrong is Google’s “President, Advertising and Commerce, North America.” He directs their online ad sales. In responding to concerns about competition in the online advertising market–given its links to broader societal concerns–more than just assurances from the sales department is required.

Behavioral Targeters Use Our Online Data to Track Our Actions and, They Say, to “Automate Serendipity.” Attention: FTC, Congress, EU, State AG’s, and Everyone Else Who Cares About Consumer Welfare (let alone issues related to public health and ethics!)

NPR’s On the Media co-host and Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield provides policymakers and advocates with an arsenal of new material that support the passage of digital age consumer protection laws. In his Ad Age essay [“Your Data With Destiny.” sub required], Garfield has this incredibly revealing–and disturbing–quote from behavioral targeting industry leader Dave Morgan (Tacoda) [our emphasis]:

“Now we have the ability to automate serendipity,” says Dave Morgan, founder of Tacoda, the behavioral-marketing firm sold to AOL in 2007 for a reported $275 million. “Consumers may know things they think they want, but they don’t know for sure what they might want.”

Garfield writes that “In 2006 Tacoda did a project for Panasonic in which it scrutinized the online behavior of millions of internet users — not a sample of 1,200 subjects to project a result against the whole population within a statistical margin of error; this was actual millions. Then it broke down that population’s surfing behavior according to 400-some criteria: media choices, last site visited, search terms, etc. It then ranked all of those behaviors according to correlation with flat-screen-TV purchase…“We no longer have to rely on old cultural prophecies as to who is the right consumer for the right message,” Morgan says. “It no longer has to be microsample-based [à la Nielsen or Simmons]. We now have [total-population] data, and that changes everything. With [those] data, you can know essentially everything. You can find out all the things that are nonintuitive or counterintuitive that are excellent predictors. … There’s a lot of power in that.”

There’s more in the piece, including what eBay is doing. As the annual Advertising Week fest begins in New York, we hope the leaders of the ad industry will take time to reflect on what they are creating. You cannot have a largely invisible system which tracks and analyzes our online and interactive behaviors and relationships, and then engages in all manner of stealth efforts to get individuals (including adolescents and kids) to act, think or feel in some desired way. Such a system requires rules which make the transaction entirely transparent and controlled by the individual. The ad industry must show some responsibility here.

Google’s YouTube: Home-Page to Feature More Brand-friendly Ads says trade story

That’s from a story written by Silicon Alley Insider. As YouTube further transforms into more of a deep-pocketed brand friendly online video service, it will be important to identify how it tries to better serve advertisers (via data collection, targeting, placement, etc.). Here’s an excerpt from the story [our emphasis]:

Take a good, long look at YouTube’s homepage. You may not recognize it soon…Advertising sources say YouTube is revamping the homepage to accommodate a huge new banner ad that will span the entire width of the page. The ad will [sic] is roughly the same height as the current video ad unit on the upper right of the page, and designed to accommodate high-definition video… Sources who have seen the unit describe it having multiple tabs that activate when rolled over by a cursor.

YouTube is …offering inaugural sponsors a deal to buy the new unit for roughly the same price as the old, or about $200,000 a day… Industry observers think that News. Corp.’s MySpace is getting more than a $1 million for takeover ads on its homepage.”

source: “YouTube Finally Figures Out How To Make Money: Big Ads On Its Homepage.” Michael Learmonth. Silicon Alley Insider. August 28, 2008