Much has been written in the past few weeks about the amazing things the Obama 2012 campaign did in identifying and turning out voters. Just as much has been written about the Romney campaign’s failure to do the same thing, but it isn’t quite as fair. There were many reasons Obama won, but the ability to take advantage of more channels of information to identify voters was a big part of it.
The private sector has been doing this for years. For advertisers like Google and Yahoo! and e-commerce sites like Amazon, knowing what you do and where you click online is their bread and butter. It helps them put products in front of you that you’re more likely to buy, because they don’t make money if you don’t click. Obama’s team was better at adapting those techniques to the campaign world.
What I didn’t get to talk about with Matt do to time constraints was the fact that Republicans can take a great deal of solace in the fact that these aren’t new magical spells being cast by technological wizards. These are old hat tactics that can (and probably will) help Republicans with in the next campaign cycle. For years, the advertising dollars have been moving toward personal advertising (like online ads) which can present content to an audience with much greater precision than mass advertising.
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens was ridiculed for saying that Mitt Romney ran less of a national campaign than Barack Obama, but he’s right, and Obama was right to do it.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been banging the drum on a proposed Health and Human Services rule that would mandate insurance companies share patient data with the federal government. The purpose of the program ostensibly noble – the administration wants to collect as much data on health care as possible to determine. But Huelkamp correctly notes that data is not always secure. Companies and governments lose personal data on customers and citizens periodically.
In a related story, Google revealed that the US government asks the search company for more user data than any other government on the planet. In fact, there were more requests for Google data than there were wiretaps on phones last year.
While Google may look skeptically on the government requests for information, the HHS program sounds like something out of Google labs – aggregating data about users of the health care system to ensure better future outcomes. Just as Google has multiple touch points where it meets its users (search, YouTube, Android, Gmail, etc.), so does the government. What if they started connecting the dots? We send tax returns in each year, so the IRS knows how much we make, where we live, whether we own or rent, what we do for a living. On a state level, readily available voter registration data tells them how often we vote and may even give them a good idea how we would vote, based on primary voting history. That doesn’t even get into people who participate in federal programs for medical help, student loans, social security, or public assistance. And it doesn’t take into account the possibility of government looking elsewhere for data. Today it’s Google, but a host of other companies are out there looking at what you but, what magazines you subscribe to, how often you gas up your car, and what TV shows you watch.
Eventually, other government agencies could follow the same model as HHS, expanding their data points on each citizen. That’s when it could get really interesting, especially if some enterprising staffer in some agency realizes all the information that’s pouring in. Imagine if the roadblocks between executive agencies came down, all the data was in one big pile? The administration could be an even more voracious consumer of data, and use if to create detailed analyses of national trends, attitudes, and issues. Here’s a video representation of how this might look:
A campaign or company wouldn’t use available data to recruit new customers or make life better for existing ones. When I go to Amazon or Best Buy’s website, they look at what I’ve bought in the past and make recommendations; it’s simply good business. An executive agency, which is supposed to strive for efficiency, would pick up on this trend as a way to streamline government services. The difference, though, is that if you’re creeped out, you can always shop somewhere else.
Since at least 2009, Facebook has kept an office here in Your Nation’s Capital, but the company became an official part of the DC community this week when their PR consultant got caught trying to recruit bloggers to write anti-Google stories.
As consulting snafus go, this is pretty mild – especially when a reading of the original emails suggests that the PR consultant was not doing anything wrong, underhanded, or illegal. This isn’t Jack Bonner’s “contractors” cooking up fake letters, it’s a PR person recruiting someone to sign an op-ed – in other words, exactly what they are paid to do.
The problem is they asked the wrong person. Sure, Chris Soghoian lists himself as a “security and privacy” researcher. But the name of his blog is “Slight Paranoia.” That’s the type of blogger who asks questions about why you’re barking up his tree and encouraging him to take a public stance against Google.
The situation highlights how trying to wage public affairs battles anonymously can backfire. Clearly, Facebook wanted to sling mud without getting their hands dirty. But they had a legitimate point about Google and privacy. Google collects an enormous amount of information on people, many times without users understanding how they are sending that information. People have had beefs with Facebook on privacy, but the information you put out on Facebook is information you actively put on the internet; if the world suddenly knows you like My Little Pony and Elmer’s Glue it’s because you signed up for a Facebook account and clicked “like” on those pages, you sick, pathetic degenerate.
Facebook isn’t the only big player going after Google; both MicroSoft and AT&T have put big money into public policy campaigns taking shots at everything from privacy to intellectual property.
Like those other companies and many others in all kinds of industries, though, Facebook figured out that the government’s activities could impact their business. Because they tried (through their PR agent) to get too cute, Facebook’s message on privacy is obscured because of a tactical misstep.
Welcome to Washington.
From digitizing books to organizing news, Google has made it very clear that their business involves organizing the world’s information into internet content. This week’s announcement that Google is setting up a subscription service can’t come as a surprise: after all, you don’t build your own road without eventually building a tollbooth, right?
Politico related Tuesday morning how liberal activists are bringing the awesome power of the Google to bear on Republican opponents:
Chris Bowers, campaign director for the Daily Kos, is launching a behind-the-scenes campaign against 98 House Republican candidates that attempts to capitalize on voters’ Google search habits in the hopes of influencing midterm races.
Bowers wants the Daily Kos’ thousands of participants to dig up little-noted or controversial news stories about the candidates that could hurt their chances with undecided voters. Users would click on the links and blog about the stories with the goal of boosting their rankings on search engines, so that undecided voters will discover them more easily.
These activists are… well, we don’t know who they are. One might say their identities could be somewhat “shadowy. They aren’t necessarily based in the districts in which they are campaigning, so I assume you could call this group “outside” activists. But regardless of what one calls this shadowy outside group, one must admit that they have every right to make their voice heard, right?
In all seriousness, though, this “new” tactic isn’t all that new at all (for a couple years, searching for the the term “miserable failure” famously brought up links to President George W. Bush’s profile thanks to a similar effort). A more valid question is what good this tactic will do – and its main value may be as a team-building exercise to start getting the Democrats far-left base back involved. That may not mean much in two weeks, but you can bet that Democrats will be looking to re-take the majority on the morning of November 3 – and that means they will need these types of activists to fuel excitement and energy just as the Tea Party groups have done for the Republicans.
Today’s announcement that Facebook and Bing are joining forces is being hailed as a major blow to Google. But before we start chiseling a headstone, let’s think about Google’s week so far:
- Thanks to a massive wind farm off the East Coast of the country, Google is in the power generation game.
- Sony’s new HDTVs bring Google’s Android operating system into the living room.
- The new Google car prototype doesn’t even need a human driver – making those Google/Skynet comparisons a little too real.
All this adds up to the fact that Bing may lap Google in the search battle, but that’s swiftly becoming less important to Google’s business model – which has always been about collecting data from different points of your daily life and using that to serve you ads.
Maybe the wind farm doesn’t obviously fit into that (although, their servers crank up an awful lot of heat and use lots of electricity to crunch all your data). But turning the family TV room into a Google-fueled den and knowing exactly where people are driving are both pretty advantageous for an advertising company. The possibilities for each of these technologies in 20 years is mind-blowing.
Facebook will continue to be valuable because of the value it offers in organizing our relationships, but Google remains one step ahead in its quest to organize (and monetize) the world’s information.
Google and Verizon have an idea of what the open internet of the future might look like, and today announced a policy proposal that the FCC – and eventually Congress – may take into consideration as they wade through these issues.
Leaving aside the meat of their proposal for a second, the deal is a good financial move. Internet carriers and internet services figure to have different opinions, and those entities are already spending a lot of money in Washington. By agreeing on something now, these companies could save millions in lobbying and grassroots campaigns later.
But beyond the strategy is the actual proposal, and there are two items which stand out. First, the proposal only applies to wireline internet carriers – the people who plug the internet into your house, also typically known as your cable company. Verizon’s FiOS service is also under that plan, but unlike those carriers, Verizon also has mobile access points to the internet through Android smartphones.
The second is that, while the proposal does call for “transparency” among internet service providers, it makes no such call for transparency or “search neutrality” from the other companies that serve as gatekeepers – notably, Google and Facebook, the companies which provide the lenses through which you see the internet.
The result is a plan which does choose some losers, but which allow its proponents to maintain their business practices. So the deal is a good move in more ways than simply keeping lobbying costs down, if you’re Google or Verizon.
Whether it’s impeccable planning or dumb luck, it’s good news for Google, which is under heavy fire for its business practices across the pond. Google is the enemy of several prominent technology companies: it’s Google vs. Facebook for how to organize and monetize personal information for ads; it’s Google vs. Microsoft for the share of our desktop applications and web browsers; and of course is Apple vs. Google for the smartphone operating system market.
Without overtly saying so, Google is trying to distance themselves from both the iPhone/iPad app store and their worries in Europe with today’s announcement. The open app builder is a nod to the legal and regulatory hurdles that any large company faces, but it’s also an important business and positioning strategy.
Computer nerds of yesteryear may begin to recognize Google’s strategy for taking down Apple. In the 1980s, Apple computers were an island – Apple software only worked on Apple hardware. IBM, the other major personal computer manufacturer, built a platform that could be cloned, resulting in “IBM-compatible” computers. As computers found their way into the home, the consumer had two choices – one computer that could run software built for multiple platforms, and one which could only run Apple-specific programs. It didn’t kill off Apple’s computer business, but it’s the reason that Windows PC’s (the descendant of the IBM-compatibles) have the market share they have today.
Today, Google’s Android OS is available on multiple smartphones from multiple carriers, just like Microsoft’s MS-DOS was available on multiple types of computers by 1989. And Apple’s iPhone only runs apps designed specifically for Apple’s iPhone. And by democratizing their app process, Google is trying to remind us all of just that.
YouTube’s victory in Viacom’s piracy lawsuit will be, in the long term, a good thing for online innovation.
Almost a decade ago, Napster was dismantled because its users shared songs. The technology it was based on was neutral – and could have been used to share legal sound files just as easily as illegal files. But the technology became the target of content creators – musicians – concerned about people using the technology for piracy.
Blaming Napster because people used it to do something illegal is like blaming a hotel because someone turned a room into a meth lab. The same analogy can be used for YouTube’s situation: they built the rails for video sharing. People could use that to share a bootleg copy of Shrek 8, thus cheating Mike Myers out of his cut of the domestic gross or DVD sales. They could also use it to share a video of a cat falling off the bed, or to create a video blog, or to jump start a comedy career, or to reveal a Congressman roughing up a college kid, or a Senator uttering something that sounds like a racial slur and changing the course of the 2008 Presidential election.
To be clear, YouTube should be held accountable for helping police piracy when concerns are brought to their attention, just as a hotel owner should cooperate with warrant-bearing law enforcement officials investigating meth distribution that seems to be coming from their hotel. The people dealing meth should be punished. If the hotel stonewalls and knowingly protects said meth dealers, they should be punished. But otherwise, the hotel owner is just someone providing a product for private use, and can’t be held liable for its mis-use.
There are, of course, legitimate questions about how important Google feels it is to do right by the people it makes money off of – and the dicey question of how much knowledge a site can have of the activity before it makes a move. But the result of the Google/Viacom case has less to do with a clash of the corporate titans than with shielding future start ups from liability (and excessive damages) for honest efforts to build online social networks. If start up sites are held liable for their members’ illegal activities, it could crush innovation and entrepreneurship. Under the Napster rules, some poor schmuck who isn’t as big as Google could lose his shirt for building a website in his basement because of the actions of the users. The YouTube rules are simply more fair.
Facebook got all the press this week answering privacy questions, but isn’t this just a matter of time?