Looking the wrong way

The U.S. agency that regulates broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission , has finally decided to allow publishers to own both newspapers and broadcast stations in the biggest U.S. markets. No one is happy. Publishers don’t think the ruling goes far enough. Cable TV companies say it is anti-competitive. Public-interest groups forecast a new round of media consolidation that limits choice, erodes accountability and restricts public access. And Congress will investigate. All this over declining mediums whose owners are squeezing blood from rolling stones.

But the profound impact of the FCC decision is that it catches a world looking the wrong way. We ought to cast our scrutiny instead on a ruling by the agency that regulates trade. Last week the FTC — that’s the Federal Trade Commission — allowed Google’s $3.1 billion acquisition of Double Click. The ruling, which also requires approval by he European Union, will make it harder for media owners, and perhaps anyone, to compete in the place where the real money is flowing.

The Google acquisition will affect the future of American media by dominating, if not controlling, the way advertising is served on the Internet. By acquiring DoubleClick, Google takes an insurmountable leap by applying technology and knowledge to advertising and marketing. It has the potential to become the only place marketers will go to reach just about anybody.

Google deserves credit, and it has been handsomely rewarded, for a prescient vision about how media and marketing are changing. Its algorithms changed the way people search for information. Now it is changing the way advertising works. It’s secret weapon: the knowledge of us.

Google is currently amassing an enormous capacity for knowing who we are and what we do. It understands that consumers use all forms of media all the time, everywhere. With its unrivaled database, it intends to serve marketers by targeting consumers based on demographics, lifestyle and consumer behavior. With its leading-edge database technology, its lucrative search-ad business, and the possible acquisition of a company that serves 40 percent of the banner advertising on the Internet, Google can dominate the advertising marketplace in the U.S. in ways most media and marketers can’t even fathom.

Moreover, Google assumes a power to enter the private spaces of our lives – our homes, our offices, our vehicles, our shops, and our devices – with news, entertainment and commercial messages aimed specifically at us. What may be good for advertising sounds troubling for the rest of society.

The FTC concluded that Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick will not substantially lessen competition. Few competitors would agree, including media managers from around the world who converged on the Harvard Business School to learn how Google intends to sell targeted advertising in every medium everywhere. “The biggest enemy of everyone in this room is Google,” said Koos Bekker, managing director of Naspers Ltd., a multimedia conglomerate based in South Africa.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Which is to say that Google sees a business model in all information and intends to monetize it, even at the expense of privacy.

Google’s founders started with message that was somewhat less imperial: “Do no evil.”
The FTC apparently believes them. The question is: do the rest of us?

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