Friday 20 September 2019

Richard Curran: We must step up scrutiny as fears grow over Facebook and Google digital duopoly

Unilever’s Keith Weed has hit out at transparency in the digital supply chain and has warned it will not spend with platforms which fail to meet standards. Photo: Getty Images
Unilever’s Keith Weed has hit out at transparency in the digital supply chain and has warned it will not spend with platforms which fail to meet standards. Photo: Getty Images
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

The chief marketing officer of one of the world's biggest consumer goods companies had some pretty harsh things to say about the world of online advertising.

Keith Weed of Unilever, whose brands include Lyons Tea, Hellmanns, HB and Lynx, said his company will not invest in platforms that do not protect children or which create division in society and promote anger and hate.

His comments were the latest in an international debate about how Google and Facebook primarily, manage advertising and whether particular ads end up running alongside inappropriate content.

Mr Weed didn't mince his words when he told a conference in California that Unilever cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain, "which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of transparency".

This is music to the ears of anyone who toils in more traditional media platforms like newspapers, TV or radio. It is equally true for those who work for the online arms of these media companies which still have to invest in generating content, while increasing levels of ad revenue are hoovered up by the likes of Facebook and Google.

Together those two companies mop up around 84pc of global spending on digital advertising, excluding China, according to GroupM, the WPP-owned media buying agency.

GroupM predicts that global ad spending will increase by about $23bn (€18.6bn) this year, with digital accounting for most of that.

But before those of us who work in journalism go cheerleading Mr Weed's comments we should look at the context of the remarks.

Unilever spends around 25pc of advertising on online platforms - not that high really. If Mr Weed believes swathes of the online world a little more than a swamp, why has his company spent billions advertising on these platforms in recent years? After all, it didn't become a swamp overnight.

At the heart of the problem is the simplicity of the advertising platform that technology developed by Google and Facebook can provide, combined with a lack of adequate regulation in regard to content they facilitate.

As a competitive tool, these companies can provide targeted advertising to global or finely-tuned local audiences. That is why they have been so successful.

But they are competing with other platforms and content providers who have to play by a totally different set of rules when it comes to content provision, as well as advertising standards.

Advertisers jumped on to this bandwagon, as a commercial decision, without question. Now there is something of a backlash and tech giants are less worried about short-term loss of revenue as they are about politicians finally waking up to the need for longer-term regulation.

Mr Weed's comments are to be welcomed but it would be even stronger if they came from the chief executive and were backed by the board.

US tech groups face increasing scrutiny of their impact on society, from politicians and consumer groups.

So it is particularly important to have that criticism of the digital ad market from a major customer.

Mr Weed has spoken about these issues before and has raised questions about whether consumers not only trust what they see online, but if they even see these ads at all.

There is a sense that politicians are beginning to respond. But they have been as slow as advertisers to really step up.

Germany is introducing fines for companies that fail to remove hate speech or fake news. The European Commission has set up its own commission into fake news.

The tech groups are stepping up their efforts to police content, in response to growing public concern. But none of it fundamentally changes their business model. They will never do that voluntarily anyway.

Google announced last year that it has an army of 10,000 human monitors who check the suitability of content. Clearly, Unilever doesn't think that is enough or it simply isn't working.

But regulation of the internet isn't just about advertising. Facebook has faced questions in the US over how Russian entities were able to run ads and other content aimed at swaying the outcome of the presidential election.

In France and Germany there are questions about targeted interference. In Britain, a parliamentary committee is seeking information from social networks over the extent of Russian account activity during the Brexit referendum campaign.

There are clearly enormous issues at stake. And there are difficult questions to be answered along the way. These companies are tremendously successful and financially powerful. They argue they are adhering to the principles of a free internet while giving consumers what they want.

Regulating them a lot more has its attractions but who regulates the regulators? They are global businesses and questions arise about how much individual countries can do.

The issues raised touch on everything from hate crimes and child safety, on the one hand, to freedom of expression and the future of the internet on the other.

When it comes to advertising some very straightforward suggestions have been put forward.

In the UK a group of its largest advertisers have called on Facebook and Google to set up an independent body to regulate and monitor content on both of their platforms.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, wants the two technology companies to adopt common policies over the detection, monitoring and removal of inappropriate content. The group's members include Lloyds Banking Group, Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

They would like to see removal of content enforced by an independent body, which the tech companies would fund.

It looks like a focused and workable proposal as long as independence could be assured.

Sometimes there are fundamental tensions between the financial goals of a large global business and the social goals of wider society.

A voluntary accommodation cannot always be found and therefore regulation comes into play.

Take another look at the predictions for growth in online advertising. Within two years some estimates put Google and Facebook sharing around $130bn (€105bn) in advertising revenues a year.

Before Christmas, GroupM said it expected spending on television advertising to have increased by 0.4pc in 2017 and 2.2pc in 2018. Digital ad investment is expected to grow by 11.5pc in 2017 and 11.3pc in 2018.

GroupM expected digital ad investment spending to exceed spending on traditional television by the end of last year in 17 markets, including the UK and Germany.

So there are questions about the future of independent journalism itself and content provision from newspapers to TV and radio.

One answer is to subsidise content providers and make tech companies pay for it. Another is to regulate the online space a lot more. Both options have merit but some problems attached too.

Subsidising content providers involves a subsidy which is a recipe for either lack of competition or endless rows about how it is divided up.

Equally, the tech companies themselves will argue they are moving more into provision of content and this is likely to happen more.

The second option involves journalists working for tech companies in one guise or another with regulation in place to ensure their independence. This is hardly ideal either and would raise questions about genuine independence.

Mr Weed's comments are welcome in furthering this debate but they aren't new either.

At least these issues are now being discussed but politicians have to step up here. Google now employs 7,000 people in Ireland. Facebook is not that far behind it.

That makes them significant players in the Irish economy.

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