Google: Search and Data Seizure
Getting to Know You
Internet users are largely oblivious to the fact that our online experience--websites, search engines and social networks--is being shaped to better serve advertisers, including those "big brand" purveyors of cars, fast food, and prescription drugs. As part of this process, individuals are being electronically "shadowed" online, our actions and behaviors observed, collected, and analyzed so we can be "micro-targeted." The goal of interactive marketing is to use the awesome power of new media to deeply engage us in what is being sold: whether it's a car, a vacation, a politician or a belief.
Google is by far the most ambitious of this new breed of interactive advertising companies. It now dominates the search business, recently earning more than three-quarters of ad dollars spent for that medium. The one part of the online ad industry it covets but does not yet have real clout is known as the "display" market--those flashy and video-like ads on major websites--that's where Doubleclick comes in.
In its pursuit of becoming the leading global force in interactive marketing, Google wants to know even more about each of us. As CEO Eric Schmidt explained last May, "We cannot even answer the most basic questions because we don't know enough about you. That is the most important aspect of Google's expansion." He said that Google wants to be able to answer when users ask, for example, "the question such as 'What shall I do tomorrow?' and 'What job shall I take?'"
Google will be able to wield enormous power to invest and promote content across cyberspace and even in newspapers and television. For that reason alone we should be concerned about this merger, the related consolidation, and the interactive marketing model at the core of digital communications. Currently, Google distributes more than $3 billion a year to its content partners (including hundreds of thousands of websites, from The Nation to the New York Times). These ad revenue funds are known as TAC--traffic acquisition costs. But how Google determines how much TAC to share--and to whom to award it--will likely have profound consequences for media diversity.
Do we wish to have a new media environment where one company--or a handful of giants, driven by the demands of profit-seeking shareholders--make decisions about editorial content and public service programming? What happens to the "long tail" of interactive content if a giant like Google decides it should primarily invest in content that generates the most revenue, or ruffles the fewest government and corporate interests?
New Scrutiny on Google
So far, Google and the rest of the largest players in the interactive advertising business have avoided the critical scrutiny necessary so the public can be informed to begin asking such questions. This week, however, the European Commission launches its inquiry of the Google/DoubleClick merger; the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee held a hearing Thursday. The FTC is reviewing the deal, with a decision expected by year's end.
One reason why there has been so little critical scrutiny of Google is that it has been the leading corporate supporter for such key media reform goals as network neutrality and open access to wireless spectrum. But while seemingly on the side of the public interest, Google has taken such positions for its own reasons, principally to expand its online advertising business (including ads delivered on cell phones). Another reason why so few questions are being asked is that policy-makers have failed to keep up with the fast-moving changes transforming the interactive media marketplace.
Regardless of what happens to Google's planned expansion with DoubleClick, fundamental questions about the role interactive marketing and advertising play in shaping our new media world should be raised. We are evolving into a new global society where the corporate giants will be able to deliver personalized commercials on an array of platforms. Much of interactive marketing is designed to work in an under-the-radar way, out of our conscious awareness (which is why Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and the others oppose meaningful consumer privacy rules). These electronic pitches will be generated by advertisers, regardless of the consequences to the environment, our values, and global economic disparities. Do we want a ubiquitous data collection system where private repositories of sensitive information can be sold to the highest commercial bidder--or turned over to the state for its own political interests?
With the Internet and other online media holding such promise for achieving diversity of expression, do we really want to find ourselves beholden to a global few to underwrite the editorial content essential for democracy? These are among the key concerns that should be on a progressive agenda for this and future digital generations.