Our Web, Not Theirs

“FaceSeeker”

Media power takes on new dimensions as we move into an “always on” digital mediascape. At this pivotal moment we should question whether the needs of citizens in a democratic society are being overshadowed by the drive for new media profits.

A concentrated participator medium?
One recent study showed that only 20 domains (websites) capture 39% of all the time spent online by US users. Considering that the Internet is technically an open medium, this is an amazingly high level of user concentration. MySpace.com, which is owned by News Corporation, commands an astounding 11.9% of US users’ time online. Bearing in mind the USA has well over two hundred million Internet users, this kind of concentration of online website usage creates huge vectors of power.

Chief among the online brands are the ever-popular social networking websites.
In the period between September 2006 to February 2007 the number of visitors to the social networking website Facebook.com jumped 75% to 24.8 million users worldwide and the number of visitors to MySpace.com grew 26% to 98.5 million. More than half of all Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use some online social networking sites.

Many of the most powerful online media websites are owned by some of the largest media corporations in the world. Fox Interactive Media (News Corp) spent $580 million to acquire MySpace.com. Google, a large and more powerful media corporation, owns one of the most popular blog platforms: BlogSpot.com. Google also purchased Youtube, the most popular online video site on the Internet, for $1.65 billion. Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL Time Warner own other popular platforms. Google’s chief executive officer Eric Schmidt recently estimated that Google purchases start-up web companies every few days, and is quoted saying, “I think the pace [of Google buyouts] will accelerate”.

In Who’s Interest is the Internet Being Shaped?

This level of power over the Internet, the most powerful medium the world has ever seen, begs the question: how are major web owners using these online properties? New commercial incursions by big online media enterprises including the widely disdained “Facebook Beacon”, make explicit what new media giants have been doing quietly for some time: searching for new and more effective ways to sell our attention, our clicks, and our private information to advertisers and marketers. The Facebook Beacon system monitored Facebook users activities on partnering websites and notified the users’ friends about purchases made. It’s not surprising that this both ruined a few Christmas surprises and outraged many when they realized the level of surveillance they were exposed to. Although Facebook recently bowed to public pressure and made this referral system only apply to those who opt in, it was also recently revealed that the beacon continues to monitor Facebook users activities on the web even if they are logged out of Facebook, regardless of if they opt in to the beacon service.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described the Facebook advantage to advertisers this way:

you will be able to select exactly the audience you want to reach, and we will only show your ads to them. We know exactly what gender someone is, what activities they are interested in. their location, country, city or town, interests…

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Facebook may have misjudged its audience and taken privacy invasions a step too far for its users to passively accept, but this kind of surveillance and data collection is the norm with the new media cartel. Myspace has its own “HyperTargeting” system described by Michael Barrett, Chief Revenue Officer for MySpace parent division Fox Interactive Media, as

an ad platform that translates our massive amounts of self-expressed user data into highly targeted, interest-based segments, enabling us to better serve the exact right ad to the right person at the right time.

Media companies are working with marketers to segment online participants into target groups, and to quote a marketing company, “corralling your next online movement–by controlling and limiting what’s headed your way, in the form of packaged, personalized content”. The marketing company Future Now boasts of something called “Persuasion Architecture” that,

provides a detailed process for persuading your visitors to take the actions you want them to take. Nothing is left to chance. You design persuasive paths based on personas to provide visitors with the information they want, when they want it, in language that speaks to their individual needs.”

The marketing industry is also investigating, and refining measurements of responses to ads, including brain behaviors involving both cognition and emotion. Let’s also consider that Google has applied for a patent for

a method by which an end user accessing the Internet via a wireless access point (WAP) would be served advertisements based on factors such as the geographic location, a behavioral profile… [and] local vertical market.

According to the head of the multimedia department at Nokia, 180 million Nokia phones will be shipped or be downloaded in 2008 with the ability to beam “location-aware content.” Using various new technologies together, online media conglomerates will be able to beam you real time ads on your phone while you’re talking with a friend. The ad could be based on your conversation, location, and the known reaction you’ll have – based on emotional and cognitive brain research. Kids are on the front line of this future of ubiquitous commercial surveillance. Last January, Nickelodeon launched its kid virtual world Nicktropolis. Vice president of Nickelodeon Online Properties, Jason Root, recently said “We’re going to have a great immersive experience both with kids and advertisers. Nicktropolis has 5.5 million kid users.

Concentrated Power Must Be Challenged
Clearly we cannot allow this big business regulation of the Internet to continue unchallenged. There are three levers we can use to keep the new media cartel in check:

1. Push for public interest policy that limits the new media cartels ability to exploit web users. The Center Digital Democracy, US PIRG and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are fighting these battles on our behalf in Washington.

2. Build public campaigns to limit and roll back exploitation of web users by new media giants. MoveOn’s recent successful campaign to get Facebook to reframe from the worst of its predatory practices is a great example.

3. Support digital public benefit spaces and services that respect user privacy and our right unencumbered online navigation. This last lever is perhaps the most effective and successful but maybe the least acknowledged.

Major success stories of online media that actually benefit the public include Wikipedia and Firefox. Both of these projects use open-source code, meaning the software is openly available to use and build upon, and are owned by non-profit foundations. The defining characteristic of these two projects and others like them is that they are both operated as public benefit operations, meaning they are geared towards generating benefits for the public collectively rather than just increasing the profits of shareholders.

The FireFox browser has a miniscule marketing budget, yet has grown to become Microsoft’s number one competitor in this area, even surpassing the very savvy Apple Corporation. It is the openness of FireFox that attracts developers to add applications that allow you to block advertisements and other highly sought services. Firefox has been downloaded over 448 million times. The non-profit, open-source, citizen produced Wikipedia is touted as one of the 15 most visited websites in the world.

What these, and the wider public benefit web have not quite tackled yet is the ever-popular social networking community. However, Freespeech TV is in the process of doing just that. They are building a social networking and video sharing community that is non-profit, non-commercial, and built on an open-source software platform called Drupal.

What these examples begin to show us is that we have a reliable and growing public benefit web infrastructure available to us. While fighting for public interest policy and organizing web users each remain key activities in the fight for our right to an open Internet, nothing scares this new media cartel more than real competition. The public interest group MoverOn recently was able to get over 50,000 people to sign a petition against the Facebook Beacon. As a result Facebook backed off from the worst of their Beacon service. This should serve as a reminder that the new media cartel needs us more then we need them. The second we collectively decide we want a more open, and independent web we will have it.

It’s our web, not theirs.