5 Reasons Search Marketers Should Watch the Regulatory Landscape

You may wonder what a recent hack of a U.S. government website, purportedly by the group “Anonymous,” has to do with search engine marketing and online marketing, but bear with me as we use this as a segue into the regulatory environment, both in the U.S. and globally.

The conspiracy theorists (including some very bright and sane people) believe that this was a “False Flag” event and that an element or faction of the U.S. government actually hacked one of its own sites in order to pave the way for easy passage of Internet security reform with an emphasis on governmental control to regulate communications.

Whether or not the conspiracy theories are right could end up being a moot point. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some mobile and Internet wiretapping bills proposed that gain far greater bipartisan support due to the ammunition provided by this and other hacking incidents. Not many people in Congress even understand the digital ecosystem as well as they should, so a poorly worded law could have far-reaching consequences (both intentional and unintentional).

Before we move on to our discussion of the Internet regulatory landscape, I have to mention that I find myself chuckling every time a hack is claimed by “Anonymous” or blamed on “Anonymous” because anyone can claim to be anonymous… Those of you who watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm” probably remember when Larry gets upset because Ted Danson gets to be “Faux Anonymous,” which of course means the reverse is even more true when being the “Anonymous” hacker means your hack will get far more coverage in the press. So when it comes to being a hacker, everyone wants to be “Anonymous.”

Anyway, the following are some reasons we, as advertisers and as consumers, should watch the regulatory landscape carefully over the next several years starting immediately:

  1. Security concerns and the ability of law enforcement agencies to request information adds a cost burden on businesses running on the Internet. So far, the businesses most heavily hit have been bigger organizations that can absorb the costs of complying with government requests. Google, for example, gets thousands of requests a month for private information. Google even launched a transparency report page to educate consumers on the ways Google protects identity and personally identifiable information (PII) whenever possible, as well as the volume of requests Google gets of each type. Twitter has a similar page on transparency. My guess is that every email provider and social network finds itself inundated with a variety of government requests. The time will come when marketers with PII may find themselves at the receiving end of similar requests (see No. 3).
  2. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded its anti-trust investigation of Google. Many pundits think that Google got off easy, but there were changes made to internal and external policies as a result of the FTC’s recommendations. Google is striving for a higher level of transparency within both its paid and organic search dashboards (Webmaster Tools and AdWords), and I believe there are some changes that are being made to its API terms of service (haven’t had a chance to compare, but there was definitely room for improvement there). Even the new version of Chrome – being released within a month or two (no firm date) – apparently has some changes in functionality as a result of the FTC’s recommendations.
  3. Last year, the FTC announced that it is starting an investigation into data brokers who collect, store, and sell non-PII and PII data that is often appended to or matched to online cookies.
  4. Industry-led efforts may not be seen as sufficient by the regulatory agencies. For example, within display advertising, ads targeted based on the user ID of behavioral cookie data are supposed to provide notification of such. The group leading the charge here is the Digital Advertising Alliance’s (DAA) Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising. However, the way in which the icons are used is varied and may confuse consumers (because clicking on the triangle (i) icon provides a different user experience depending on the partner organization and/or publisher). Another group taking a broader role is the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).
  5. Mobile devices potentially know even more about you than desktop and laptop devices. Furthermore, TVs are becoming Internet-enabled. This opens up opportunities for abuse, and governments are prone to take action if any high-profile abuses happen.

Even internal teams at companies can’t agree. Microsoft wants IE to block third-party cookies by default (or at least send the Do Not Track request), but Microsoft has lots of people in the publishing and advertising side of the organization who think that’s not the appropriate setting.

As search engine marketers, the results of both of these investigations and any guidelines, policies, or sanctions that arise from regulatory intervention into our industry will have a direct or indirect impact on our strategies and tactics.

Anonymous image on home page via Shutterstock.

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