Washington Update: Will Fed Intervention Curb or Protect Your Digital Freedom?
Considering the high-tech industry's expanding reach into everyday consumer life, it should be no surprise that Washington, D.C. has taken a closer look at the Internet economy of late.
Though the industry has historically viewed Beltway politicians as a group best kept at arm's length, several hot-button tech issues on the D.C. agenda this summer might be worth keeping a closer eye on.
New influential players may clash with established political powers over decisions that could affect how we use--and how much we pay for--the technology that is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.
Here is a look at the top political/tech topics for the summer of 2010.
Facebook and Google Privacy Issues
Are you confused or concerned about how companies such as Google and Facebook use the data they collect on you as you conduct Internet searches or tend to your imaginary online farm?
If so, you're on the same side as privacy advocacy groups, whose complaints have in part motivated Congress to start drafting an Internet privacy bill that seeks to find common ground between online-advertiser interests and the concerns of privacy and consumer advocacy groups.
Facebook in particular has come under considerable fire recently for the way it handles user privacy, with several senators sending a joint letter to the company asking it to change its procedures.
Google, which seems to be perpetually under fire for its data practices, was chastised by privacy regulators from several different countries this spring, in part over the way new services such as Google Buzz inadvertently exposed user data. And you can expect massive blowback over Google's recent admissions of Wi-Fi network spying.
Though the Federal Trade Commission (which is no friend of Google's) is taking a wait-and-see stance right now, the draft privacy bill being backed by congressmen Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) and Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) shows that lawmakers are ready to put rules in place if online advertisers fail to act quickly.
What does all the tussling mean for average Facebook or Google users?
Online advertisers will lobby heavily to protect their ability to generate billions in interactive-media business based on user activity. Lawmakers seeking brownie points with online constituents, however, have easy targets in such act-first-think-later business models. It's a no-lose battle for legislators, who win either by protecting voters or by attracting more campaign contributions from concerned lobbyists or corporations.
At the very least, regulatory pressure--or the threat thereof--has already pushed Facebook into an effort to make its privacy settings more understandable.
Don't expect user-information harvesting to go away completely, though: Advertisers claim that many people find great utility in having online services help them discover new information or products. And as long as people keep clicking on spam, the advertisers may have a case.
For a company with many direct connections to the Obama administration, Google sure has a lot of enemies in Washington, D.C. these days. But in its latest clash with the FTC, Google dodged a bullet when the federal regulators recently dropped their opposition to Google's planned acquisition of mobile advertising provider AdMob.
The $750 million purchase of AdMob, announced last year, was Google's big move to gain a lead in the fast-growing field of advertisements tailored for smartphones and other mobile platforms.
Though Google dominates the wired-Internet search arena, the mobile playing field is still up for grabs. Concerns that Google plus AdMob would amount to a huge lead in the nascent marketplace spurred the FTC to do some extensive groundwork developing material to support a challenge on antitrust concerns.
What ultimately pushed the agency to drop its opposition was the emergence of a strong competitor--namely Apple's move to purchase mobile ad company Quattro Wireless in January. In a statement, the FTC all but said that increased activity in the market meant that it would be hard to see a Google-AdMob combination as being dominatingly harmful. (And perhaps the aggressive warning by Google CEO Eric Schmidt about the company's willingness to fight back against the FTC helped, too.)
Don't expect this to be the last you hear of the FTC's getting involved in Internet-market issues, though. Even Apple might end up in the FTC's crosshairs, with rumors already suggesting possible investigations into whether Apple's blocking the use of Adobe Flash from iPhone applications is an abuse of market power, or whether Apple's own iAd system is anticompetitive.
Under new chairman Jon Leibowitz, the agency is actively seeking congressional help to gain new power in an Internet-centric world where its current powers are limited. (Of course, such power might not be so bad--heck, the FTC might even help you keep that scanned image of a naked body part from being brought back out of your bad-behavior past.)
The bottom line for consumers? While regulators and politicians debate layers of jurisdiction, the only safe prediction is that more ads are coming to your mobile phone or Web browser, no matter which company serves them up. Be it a competitive market or a monopoly, we're quite sure that advertising, like politicians, won't disappear soon.
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