Monday, June 29, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Facebook v. Google v. the Techno-Aquarians

Fred Vogelstein's essay in Wired, "Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet -- and Keep Google Out" describes the intensifying clash between Google and Facebook--a clash that focuses on the ability to target advertising:

Like typical trash-talking youngsters, Facebook sources argue that their competition is old and out of touch. "Google is not representative of the future of technology in any way," one Facebook veteran says. "Facebook is an advanced communications network enabling myriad communication forms. It almost doesn't make sense to compare them."

Apart from noting that Facebook directs users to Microsoft's Bing as its default search engine for the Internet at large, the most interesting part of the article is Facebook's "4-Step Plan for Online Domination":
1. Build critical mass. In the eight months ending in April, Facebook has doubled in size to 200 million members, who contribute 4 billion pieces of info, 850 million photos, and 8 million videos every month. The result: a second Internet, one that includes users' most personal data and resides entirely on Facebook's servers.

2. Redefine search. Facebook thinks its members will turn to their friends--rather than Google's algorithms--to navigate the Web. It already drives an eyebrow-raising amount of traffic to outside sites, and that will only increase once Facebook Search allows users to easily explore one another's feeds.

3. Colonize the Web. Thanks to a pair of new initiatives--dubbed Facebook Connect and Open Stream--users don't have to log in to Facebook to communicate with their friends. Now they can access their network from any of 10,000 partner sites or apps, contributing even more valuable data to Facebook's servers every time they do it.

4. Sell targeted ads, everywhere. Facebook hopes to one day sell advertising across all of its partner sites and apps, not just on its own site. The company will be able to draw on the immense volume of personal data it owns to create extremely targeted messages. The challenge: not freaking out its users in the process.

Facebook can't keep losing money forever. Indeed, investors are willing to keep sinking money into Facebook during Phases 1-3 because they think it will pay off in Phase 4--when Facebook really threatens to be a fGoogle-killer. But rather the fact that investors are willing to subsidize the creation of a wonderful platform now used by 200 million people (one fifth of all Internet users worldwide), or that Facebook might finally provide a counter-weight to the fearsome Google, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Data (PETD) are appalled. One commenter on the Wired story put it best:

I find it amazing that people will willingly post personal information to websites that will only use it for data mining and advertising revenue. They lay their entire life open to a corporation that's only looking to profit from the information said corporation can gather for itself or it's affiliates.

When the government reads our emails, listens to our phone conversations, reads our text messages and monitors what we do online people are outraged at the invasion of our privacy. But then they log in to Facebook or Myspace or Twitter and reveal all.

The Facebook "community". Please. It's a way for Big Business to pry into our private lives and exploit us in any way they can for the money they can make.

Such arrogant entitlement is astonishing--but hardly atypical: What makes this person (or his PETD comrades) so certain that they really know what's best for everyone else and that Facebook users are poor, ignorant suckers being victimized by corporate greed? As Adam Thierer and I have been saying, there is no free lunch! Do the PETD folks expect investors to pour hundreds of millions into building innovative social networks like Facebook out of... love? As Adam Smith put it, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

While most in the PETD crowd are too young (or just historically deprived) to know the words to The Internationale (my favorite line: "Masses, slaves, arise, arise!"), one can easily imagine them kicking off PETD meetings with a somewhat more recent anthem, Aquarius, from the hit 1967 rock musical Hair:

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revalation
And the mind's true liberation

Nothing better captures the spirit of that thankfully-bygone era of narcissistic self-indulgence than the beginning of the 1979 film version:

Yes, Virginia, the marijuana-induced socialist-utopian delusions of the Sixties live on in a new generation of Techno-Aquarians, who want to have their digital cake--and eat yours too. Something for nothing, free lunch for everyone! Down with profit, up with privacy! The "vision" (as in "Golden living dreams of") behind this frenzy of frustration with online capitalism and PETD's demands for regulation is what Thomas Sowell has called the "Vision of the Anointed," "the talented few" who consider themselves wiser than everyone else, and therefore seek to impose their preferences on others, as Adam Thierer and I have both discussed.

But back to Wired:

The drumbeat of controversy surrounding Facebook illustrates the catch-22 the social network faces: It has a massive storehouse of user data, but every time it tries to capitalize on that information, its members freak out. This isn't an academic problem; the company's future depends on its ability to master the art of behavioral targeting--selling customized advertising based on user profiles. In theory, this should be an irresistible opportunity for marketers; Facebook's performance advertising program allows them to design and distribute an ad to as narrow an audience as they would like. (It has also developed a program to create ads that are designed to be spread virally.) But as the Beacon debacle showed, there is a fine line between "targeted and useful" and "creepy and stalkerish"--and so far, not enough advertisers have been willing to walk that line...

In a way, Facebook's dilemma extends from its success. Users see the site as sanctified space, a place to engage in intimate conversations with friends--not to be laser-beamed by weirdly personal advertising. But with initiatives like Connect and Open Stream, Facebook can sell ads beyond its own site. Just as Google's AdSense program sells ads on any participating Web site, Connect and Open Stream will eventually push Facebook-brokered advertising to any member site or app. But unlike with AdSense, Facebook's ads could be exquisitely tailored to their targets. "No one out there has the data that we have," says COO Sandberg.

Better targeted ads? More useful information for Internet users? A strong competitor for Google that could provide an alternative channel for advertisers and help drive up advertising revenue for publishers of "free" content and services? Sounds great for all concerned. Oh, but some people find relevant advertising "creepy?" Ah, well, let's call the whole thing off! I'm sure Facebook will get by just fine selling crudely targeted ads on its own site for pennies a click. Maybe they could ask for donations or hold a digital bake-sale (including tie-dyed t-shirts, of course)? Or we could just have "the government" support the most popular social networks (along with newspapers, banks, hedge funds and car manufacturers). And while they're at it, why not have wise bureaucrats use antitrust laws to cripple Google and thus make up for the lack of a competitive threat from Facebook and the other Google-killers-that-might-have-been?

Wired suggests that Facebook's strategy played some role in causing Google to embrace Interest-Based (behavioral) Advertising, playing catch-up to No.2 Yahoo!:

Google has even shown a willingness to join Facebook in gingerly tapping the third rail of Internet marketing--behavioral targeting. The search giant has long assured its users that it would never use their personal information to deliver targeted advertising, relying instead on aggregate data or search activity that preserves anonymity. ("There is a line with users that you don't want to cross," Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the wake of the Beacon controversy.) But in March, Google started its own behavioral targeting campaign--tracking users' browsing to deliver more-customized ads. Users have the option to either edit their profiles or opt out entirely.

With Google in the game, the fight is on. The grand prize is clear--tapping into the most lucrative advertising purchased by leading brands:
Today, global online brand advertising accounts for just $50 billion a year. Offline brand advertising, meanwhile, accounts for an estimated $500 billion.

But I doubt there will ever be any clear "winner" in this race. Instead, we're likely to see fierce competition and ongoing one-upsmanship over the coming decade (and beyond) for users, for user data, and for they ad dollars they bring, among a variety of paradigms for what the Internet of the future should look like. Facebook has already started implementing its paradigm with Connect (launched Dec. 2008) and Open Stream API (launched April 2009):
Connect and Open Stream don't just allow users to access their Facebook networks from anywhere online. They also help realize Facebook's longtime vision of giving users a unique, Web-wide online profile. By linking Web activity to Facebook accounts, they begin to replace the largely anonymous "no one knows you're a dog" version of online identity with one in which every action is tied to who users really are.

To hear Facebook executives tell it, this will make online interactions more meaningful and more personal... But you don't build a competitor to Google with people alone. You need data. And Connect and Open Stream are intended to make Facebook a much more powerful force for collecting user information. Any time someone logs in to a site that uses Connect or Open Stream, they give Facebook the right to keep track of any activity that happens there--potentially contributing tons more personal data to Facebook's servers. Facebook Connect and Open Stream are also designed to make each user's friend network, which belongs to Facebook, even more valuable and crucial to the Web experience. Together, they aim to put Facebook users' social networks at the center of all they do online.

I, for one, think this competition will create enormous value for users by driving innovation that improves the usefulness of the Internet and increases the amount of funding available for an ever-greater, ever-richer torrent of "free" (ad-supported) content and services. But if the Techno-Aquarians at PETD succeed in imposing regulatory mandates on the collection and use of online data through legislation or creeping regulation at the FTC, the Internet of the future won't look all that different from the Internet of today: online content and services will continue to attract a small share of all ad dollars (just 7% in 2008), search engines will reap the bulk of that (42% in 2008), and most online content-publishers and service-providers will continue to get literally pennies per click while only a few are able to meet evolving standards of quality with purely ad-supported business models.

Heaven forbid we should allow those who offer "free" content and services to extract... profit from the unwashed masses of helpless consumers who are either too stupid, too lazy or too ignorant to manage their own privacy, no matter how powerful the privacy management tools at their disposal! The better alternative is empower users to make their own decisions about privacy, rather than imposing top-down "Industrial Policy for the Internet" on the entire country through outright prohibitions or restrictive defaults concerning data collection and use for targeting advertising--as Adam and I have said:

The ideal state of affairs would be to create a system of tools and data disclosure practices that would empower each user to implement their personal privacy preferences while also recognizing the freedom of those who rely on advertising revenues to "condition the use of their products and services on disclosure of information"--not to mention the viewing of ads!

As Google and Facebook do battle with each other, Microsoft, Yahoo! and other upstart rivals as-yet-unknown, I only hope they all--particularly their government affairs departments--remember that their common enemy is the Techno-Aquarians who seek to impose their subjective preferences about privacy on everyone else, no matter the costs to innovation, consumers, culture or media. We'll discuss these trade-offs at our upcoming PFF Capitol Hill Briefing on July 10.

posted by Berin Szoka @ 9:42 PM | Advertising & Marketing , Privacy