People V. Ad Platforms

Get ready for the U.S. government to get into the shorts of the ad business. After a relatively calm 20 years or so during which the internet grew up, we are seeing an uptick in government involvement with tech platforms … all of which are major media channels, too. That might be fine.

Once, most content was subject to strict controls, mainly Federal Communications Commission rules. The citizens of the USA own the airwaves, and the FCC acts on our behalf to assure that airwaves are not used to transmit socially repugnant stuff. Thanks to the FCC, content was generally civil.

Now, anybody can show or say anything they want. On the open web, for example, porn sites get more visits than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Today, with a few exceptions, anyone can use any language to tell any lie to anyone else using the internet.  All humans have become unregulated media channels and content generators.

Many people have a hard time imagining how content anarchy can be harmful, but it’s becoming obvious. I guess it’s all fun and games until bad information starts killing people.  So, the stakes have been raised, and the circuit breakers of democracy are starting to kick in.



Currently, all branches of government are involved, and the game is not just about what content can be communicated. It’s about whether platforms have too much power, and whether basic rights like free speech are being violated by platforms' decisions. Advertising itself is not always the direct target, but media usually is. So, advertisers are caught in the crossfire. 

Here are a few recent examples.

According to, on June 28, a federal judge dismissed antitrust lawsuits brought against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general of a coalition of states (46 states + District of Columbia!) saying, “The FTC’s complaint says almost nothing concrete on the key questions of how much power Facebook actually had, and still has, in a properly defined antitrust product market.” Almost nothing?

Wow. The FTC, well-known monopoly buster, forgot to say anything to prove that Facebook actually has market power? A calculated risk to send a shot across the bow? Maybe.

At the helm of the FTC, and driving the FTC pursuit of Facebook, is wrathful wunderkind Lina Kahn. She is so powerful and scary that, reportedly, Amazon has requested that she be removed from office! (Is there, like, a form for that?).

This is what the Wall Street Journal editorial board said about her: “Khan is a 32-year-old academic who has no experience running anything. She helped write the October 2020 House Antitrust Subcommittee report on Big Tech … “  It’s nice to see a scorched-earth kind of girl going after corporate abuses, but, big picture, the advertising industry is pretty benign, except maybe as an enabler for political posturing. Maybe she should go after industries creating broad-based environmental damage, like energy, or chemicals.

In other news, attorneys general from 36 states have brought a new antitrust lawsuit against ad mogul Google over its app store policies. The suit alleges that Google used anticompetitive tactics to ensure that app developers have “no reasonable choice but to distribute their apps through the Google Play Store.”

In the world of sketchy platform tactics, forcing people who exploit a platform to use another part of the same platform doesn’t seem so bad. Platform owners have God-like power over those who sit on their API, and always have. Given this fact is well understood, it’s pretty easy to conclude that the AGs don’t have a clear grasp of the context of their intervention.

Moving on. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has launched a class-action lawsuit against Facebook, Google and Twitter and their CEOs. The suit seeks an “immediate halt” to their “shameful censorship” of the “American people.”

Class action, huh? What class would that be? The class of people who are deprived of his point of view? Anyway, shaming seems like a weak legal strategy, especially for a guy who has no shame.

These cases are like the cracks in the Surfside garages: telltales of something deeper. The fluid propagation of fake narratives is actually killing people,  and killing the trust that fuels American society.

It’s always been true that knowledge is power -- but no one ever envisioned companies that know most people’s relationships, interests, and purchases on a planetary scale. Tech platforms are becoming some of most powerful actors in the history of mankind. By the design of capitalism, they use that power to do their shareholders’ bidding. Any shred of altruism is a crafted illusion.

So, at this point it’s safe to say that market forces won’t fix the prolems. Unfortunately, that means the government has to.  Normally we hate that. However, at this point in history, restoring trust in information is more important than having unregulated media channels. Advertising is information, and it can’t work if nobody believes it.

1 comment about "People V. Ad Platforms".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 6, 2021 at 7:22 a.m.

    Interesting, Ted. Looking at the past, it seems that it takes the Feds about twenty years after a new medium appears to start cracking down. Radio began in the 1920s and the FCC finally forced RCA to sell one of its two radio networks---the "Blue" and the "Red"---as having more than one was considered monopolistic. So RCA sold the "Blue" network---which eventually morphed into ABC. Likewise, the FCC waited until the early 1970s ----two decades after TV arrived on the scene---before forcing the stations---and, thereby the networks----to ban tobacco ads and reduce their prime time  network content by 30 minutes per evening---again due to concerns over monopolistic control over new programming. Unfortunately---or fortunately---depending on your point of view--- cable was unregulated, which has led to some problems, however, the cable channels have largely avoided provoking the Fed's ire by behaving more or less responsibly. So now, its the digital folk's turn and, unlike cable, they can not wear the mantle of accountability or responsibly---at least some of the major players can't. Hopefully, the Feds will move rationally as they  attempt to correct some of the abuses and "monopolistic" practices as well as creating sensible rules of conduct for the social media regarding what can and can't be published. If it becomes political---as may well be the case----I  fear we are in for a bad time---but we shall have to wait and see.

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