Advertising & Marketing

Today Reason has published my policy paper addressing privacy concerns created by search, social networking and Web-based e-commerce in general.

These web sites have been in regulatory crosshairs for some time, although Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have been hesitant to push forward with restrictive legislation such as “Do Not Track” and mandatory opt-in or top-down mandates such as the White House drafted “Privacy Bill of Rights.” An the U.S. seems unwilling to go to the lengths Europe is, contemplating such unworkable rules like demanding an “Internet eraser button”—a sort of online memory hole that would scrub any information about you that is accessible on the Web, even if it is part of the public record.

In my paper, It’s Not Personal: The Dangers of Misapplied Policies to Search, Social Media and Other Web Content, I discuss the difficulty of regulating personal disclosure because different people have different thresholds for privacy. We all know people who refuse to go on Facebook because they are wary of allowing too much information about themselves to circulate. Where it gets dicey is when authority figures take a paternalistic attitude and start deciding what information I will not be allowed to share, for what they claim is my own good.

Top down mandates really don’t work, mainly because popular attitudes are always in flux. Offer me 50 percent off on a hotel room, and I may be willing to tell you where I’m vacationing. Find me interesting books and movies, and I may be happy to let you know my favorite titles.

Instead, ground-up guidelines that arise as users become more comfortable with the medium, and sites work to establish trust, work better. True, Google and Facebook often push the envelope in trying to determine where user boundaries are, but pull back when run into user protest. And when the FTC took up Google’s and Facebook’s practices, while the agency shook a metaphorical finger at both companies’ aggressiveness, it assessed no fines or penalties, essentially finding that no consumer harm was done.

This course has been wise. The willingness of users to exchange information about themselves in return for value is an important element of e-commerce. It is worth considering some likely consequences if the government pushes too hard to prevent sites from gathering information about users.

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In the upcoming issue of Harvard Business Review, my colleague Paul Nunes at Accenture’s Institute for High Performance and I are publishing the first of many articles from an on-going research project on what we are calling “Big Bang Disruption.”

The project is looking at the emerging ecosystem for innovation based on disruptive technologies.  It expands on work we have done separately and now together over the last fifteen years.

Our chief finding is that the nature of innovation has changed dramatically, calling into question much of the conventional wisdom on business strategy and competition, especially in information-intensive industries–which is to say, these days, every industry.

The drivers of this new ecosystem are ever-cheaper, faster, and smaller computing devices, cloud-based virtualization, crowdsourced financing, collaborative development and marketing, and the proliferation of mobile everything.  There will soon be more smartphones sold than there are people in the world.  And before long, each of over one trillion items in commerce will be added to the network.

The result is that new innovations now enter the market cheaper, better, and more customizable than products and services they challenge.  (For example, smartphone-based navigation apps versus standalone GPS devices.)  In the strategy literature, such innovation would be characterized as thoroughly “undiscplined.”  It shouldn’t succeed.  But it does. Continue reading →

Why do mobile carriers sell phones with a subscription?  My roommate and I were debating this the other night.  Most other popular electronics devices aren’t sold this way.  Cable and satellite companies don’t sell televisions with their video service.  ISPs don’t sell laptops and desktops with their Internet service.  Bundling phones with mobile service subscriptions is pretty unique.  (The only mass-market analogs I can think of are satellite radio and GPS service.)

Why might this be?   Continue reading →

Earlier today on Twitter, I listed what I thought were the Top 5 “Biggest Internet Policy Issues of 2012.” In case you don’t follow me on Twitter — and shame on you if you don’t! — here were my choices:

  1. Copyright wars reinvigorated post-SOPA; tide starting to turn in favor of copyright reform. [TLF posts on copyright.]
  2. Privacy still red-hot w ECPA reform, online advertising regs & kids’ privacy issues all pending. [TLF posts on privacy.]
  3. WCIT makes Internet governance / NetFreedom a major issue worldwide. [TLF posts on Net governance.]
  4. Antitrust threat looms larger w pending Google case + Apple books investigation. [TLF posts on antitrust.]
  5. Cybersecurity regulatory push continues in both legislative (CISPA) & executive branch. [TLF posts on cybersecurity.]

Lists like these are entirely subjective, of course, but I am basing my list on the general amount of chatter I tended to see and hear about each topic over the course of the year.

What do you think the top tech policy issues of the year were?

My most recent Forbes column is entitled, “We All Hate Advertising, But We Can’t Live Without It.” It’s my attempt to briefly (a) defend the role advertising has traditionally played in sustaining news, entertainment, and online service, and (b) discuss some possible alternatives to advertising that could be tapped if advertising starts failing us a media cross-subsidy.

What got me thinking about this issue again was the controversy over satellite video operator DISH Network offering its customers a new “Auto Hop” capability for its Hopper whole-home HD DVR system. Auto Hop will give viewers the ability to automatically skip over commercials for most recorded prime time programs shown on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC when viewed the day after airing. It makes the viewing experience feel like the ultimate free lunch. Alas, something still must pay the bills. As innovative as that technology is, we can be certain that it will not make content consumption cost-free. We’ll just pay the price in some other way. The same is true for online services since it’s never been easier to use technology to block ads.

So, what is going to pay the bills for content as ad-skipping becomes increasingly automated and effortless? Stated differently, what are the other possible methods of picking up the tab for content creation? Here’s a rough taxonomy: Continue reading → has just posted my commentary on the five reasons why Federal Trade Commission’s proposals to regulate the collection and use of consumer information on the Web will do more harm than good.

As I note, the digital economy runs on information. Any regulations that impede the collection and processing of any information will affect its efficiency. Given the overall success of the Web and the popularity of search and social media, there’s every reason to believe that consumers have been able to balance their demand for content, entertainment and information services with the privacy policies these services have.

But there’s more to it than that. Technology simply doesn’t lend itself to the top-down mandates. Notions of privacy are highly subjective. Online, there is an adaptive dynamic constantly at work. Certainly web sites have pushed the boundaries of privacy sometimes. But only when the boundaries are tested do we find out where the consensus lies.

Legislative and regulatory directives pre-empt experimentation. Consumer needs are best addressed when best practices are allowed to bubble up through trial-and-error. When the economic and functional development of European Web media, which labors under the sweeping top-down European Union Privacy Directive, is contrasted with the dynamism of the U.S. Web media sector which has been relatively free of privacy regulation – the difference is profound.

An analysis of the web advertising market undertaken by researchers at the University of Toronto found that after the Privacy Directive was passed, online advertising effectiveness decreased on average by around 65 percent in Europe relative to the rest of the world. Even when the researchers controlled for possible differences in ad responsiveness and between Europeans and Americans, this disparity manifested itself. The authors go on to conclude that these findings will have a “striking impact” on the $8 billion spent each year on digital advertising: namely that European sites will see far less ad revenue than counterparts outside Europe.

Other points I explore in the commentary are:

  • How free services go away and paywalls go up
  • How consumers push back when they perceive that their privacy is being violated
  • How Web advertising lives or dies by the willingness of consumers to participate
  • How greater information availability is a social good

The full commentary can be found here.


Six months may not seem a great deal of time in the general business world, but in the Internet space it’s a lifetime as new websites, tools and features are introduced every day that change where and how users get and share information. The rise of Facebook is a great example: the social networking platform that didn’t exist in early 2004 filed paperwork last month to launch what is expected to be one of the largest IPOs in history. To put it in perspective, Ford Motor went public nearly forty years after it was founded.

This incredible pace of innovation is seen throughout the Internet, and since Google’s public disclosure of its Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation just this past June, there have been many dynamic changes to the landscape of the Internet Search market. And as the needs and expectations of consumers continue to evolve, Internet search must adapt – and quickly – to shifting demand.

One noteworthy development was the release of Siri by Apple, which was introduced to the world in late 2011 on the most recent iPhone. Today, many consider it the best voice recognition application in history, but its potential really lies in its ability revolutionize the way we search the Internet, answer questions and consume information. As Eric Jackson of Forbes noted, in the future it may even be a “Google killer.”

Of this we can be certain: Siri is the latest (though certainly not the last) game changer in Internet search, and it has certainly begun to change people’s expectations about both the process and the results of search. The search box, once needed to connect us with information on the web, is dead or dying. In its place is an application that feels intuitive and personal. Siri has become a near-indispensible entry point, and search engines are merely the back-end. And while a new feature, Siri’s expansion is inevitable. In fact, it is rumored that Apple is diligently working on Siri-enabled televisions – an entirely new market for the company.

The past six months have also brought the convergence of social media and search engines, as first Bing and more recently Google have incorporated information from a social network into their search results. Again we see technology adapting and responding to the once-unimagined way individuals find, analyze and accept information. Instead of relying on traditional, mechanical search results and the opinions of strangers, this new convergence allows users to find data and receive input directly from people in their social world, offering results curated by friends and associates. Continue reading →

Ceci c’est un meme.

On Forbes today, I look at the phenomenon of memes in the legal and economic context, using my now notorious “Best Buy” post as an example. Along the way, I talk antitrust, copyright, trademark, network effects, Robert Metcalfe and Ronald Coase.

It’s now been a month and a half since I wrote that electronics retailer Best Buy was going out of business…gradually.  The post, a preview of an article and future book that I’ve been researching on-and-off for the last year, continues to have a life of its own.

Commentary about the post has appeared in online and offline publications, including The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, TechCrunch, Slashdot, MetaFilter, Reddit, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool, and CNN. Some of these articles generated hundreds of user comments, in addition to those that appeared here at Forbes.
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[Cross-posted at]

This week Google announced that it is grouping 60 of its Web services, such as Gmail, the Google+ social network, YouTube and Google Calendar, under a single privacy policy that would allow the company to share user data between any of those services. These changes will be effective March 1.

Although we have yet to see it play out in practice, this likely means that if you use Google services, the videos you play on YouTube may automatically be posted to your Google+ page. If you’ve logged an appointment in your Google calendar, Google may correlate the appointment time with your current location and local traffic conditions and send you an email advising you that you risk being late.

At the same time, if you’ve called in sick with the intention of going fishing, that visit to the nearby state park might show up your Google+ page, too.

The policy, however, will not include Google’s search engine, Google’s Chrome web browser, Google Wallet or Google Books.

The decision quickly touched off discussion as to whether Google was pushing the collection and manipulation too far. The Federal Trade Commission is already on its back over data sharing and web tracking. With this latest decision, although it’s not that far from how Facebook, Hotmail and Foursquare work, just more streamlined, Google, some say, is all but flouting user and regulatory concerns.

Continue reading →

[Cross posted from TechFreedom]

Today, the Digital Advertising Alliance, a group of leading digital ad agencies and online ad networks, unveiled a campaign to bring attention to AdChoices, its icon-based system allowing users to opt-out of behavioral advertising. The following statement can be attributed to Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom:

In the 1990s, Congress tried and failed to regulate Internet content. Instead, the courts have required an approach grounded in user empowerment, education and enforcement of existing laws against fraud and deception. Today, we’re seeing the the advertising industry build on this approach for consumer protection on privacy. The AdChoices campaign launched last summer empowers consumers to make their own choices on privacy. The ad campaign launched today educates consumers on how to use this tool. The Digital Advertising Alliance has promised to enforce industry’s principles. Consumer advocates should hold them to that promise. It’s also fair to insist that empowerment and education improve over time. But today, for once, let’s give the ad industry credit for doing the right thing.