Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for August 31st, 2017

A Serf on Google’s Farm

Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, in a must-read piece about Google’s dominance of the web:

What all of this comes down to is that we at TPM – and some version of this is the case for the vast majority of publishers – are connected to Google at almost every turn. (I’ve only mentioned the big ones.) Running TPM absent Google’s various services is almost unthinkable. Like I literally would need to give it a lot of thought how we’d do without all of them. Some of them are critical and I wouldn’t know where to start for replacing them. In many cases, alternatives don’t exist because no business can get a footing with a product Google let’s people use for free.

But here’s where the rubber really meets the road. The publishers use DoubleClick. The big advertisers use DoubleClick. The big global advertising holding companies use Doubleclick. Everybody at every point in the industry is wired into DoubleClick. Here’s how they all play together. The adserving (Doubleclick) is like the road. (Adexchange) is the biggest car on the road. But only AdExchange gets full visibility into what’s availability. (There’s lot of details here and argument about just what Google does and doesn’t know. But trust me on this. They keep the key information to themselves. This isn’t a suspicion. It’s the model.) So Google owns the road and gets first look at what’s on the road. So not only does Google own the road and makes the rules for the road, it has special privileges on the road. One of the ways it has special privileges is that it has all the data it gets from search, Google Analytics and Gmail. There’s more I’ll get to in a moment but the interplay between DoubleClick and Adexchange is so vastly important to the entirety of the web, digital publishing and the entire ad industry that it is almost impossible to overstate. Again. They own the road. They make the rules for the road. And they get special privileges on the road with every new iteration of rules.

I could quote nearly every paragraph of this piece. Much of it you’ve probably heard before, but Marshall walks through Google’s total monopolization of the online media industry from a perspective rarely told.

On the Intercept, Conflicts of Interest, and Journalistic Independence

David Dayen of the Intercept published a piece today criticizing the New York Times for failing to indicate in their coverage of new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that Khosrowshahi is on the Times’ board of directors:

As long as Khosrowshahi stays in place, questions will inevitably be raised about the paper’s deeper enterprise reporting into Uber’s business practices. The Times has generally done a credible job in covering Uber. It has broken unflattering news, such as venture capital firm Benchmark suing Kalanick and the use of a secret program called “Greyball” to deceive legal authorities who banned the service in certain locations. It has reported on a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver and the company’s efforts to cover it up. A large interactive spread on Uber’s “psychological tricks” to boost ridership ran in April.

But none of those pieces were published while Uber had a presence on the Times Company’s board. And it will be difficult to gauge the organization’s transparency going forward without being privy to internal deliberations among the editorial staff.

The independence of journalistic organizations and the extent to which their funding and governance impacts their coverage has long been a pet favourite topic of media critics. It’s not unwarranted — management at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were accused of manipulating articles related to the paper’s sale to Sheldon Adelson, and Buzzfeed spiked stories concerning certain advertisers.

But this is a bit of a funny story coming from the Intercept, given what co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald wrote three years ago concerning an apparent scandal:

This morning, I see that some people are quite abuzz about a new Pando article “revealing” that the foundation of Pierre Omidyar, the publisher of First Look Media which publishes The Intercept, gave several hundred thousand dollars to a Ukraininan “pro-democracy” organization opposed to the ruling regime. This, apparently, is some sort of scandal that must be immediately addressed not only by Omidyar, but also by every journalist who works at First Look. That several whole hours elapsed since the article was published on late Friday afternoon without my commenting is, for some, indicative of disturbing stonewalling.

Greenwald’s defences against Pando’s report — which implies a lack of editorial independence for the Intercept owing to Omidyar’s foundation’s donations1 — amounts to the following:

  • This isn’t a real scandal.

  • This isn’t a problem because Omidyar’s donations were publicized. By that same criteria, Khosrowshahi’s new job also isn’t a problem because the Times’ board of directors is public knowledge and Uber made a public announcement.

  • This isn’t a problem because the Intercept is journalistically independent from Omidyar’s personal beliefs and politics. By that same criteria, this isn’t a problem for the Times because their editorial staff is independent from their directors’ beliefs and politics.

    Greenwald is only too happy to share links to stories that prove the Intercept’s independence. Similarly, Dayen’s article about the appointment of Uber’s new CEO — as quoted above — links to several articles that show the Times’ indifference to how Uber or Khosrowshahi might feel about their coverage. Mike Isaac’s coverage of Khosrowshahi’s new job is highly critical of Uber. The Times’ board of directors also include former executives from Pandora, Verizon, Facebook, and other companies the Times has reported on, with seemingly no effect on their journalistic integrity.

Greenwald:

That funding [for quality journalism], by definition, is going to come from people rich enough to provide it. And such people are almost certainly going to have views and activities that you find objectionable. If you want to take the position that this should never be done, that’s fine: just be sure to apply it consistently to the media outlets and groups you really like.

Good point: consistency is important. For example, while Dayen knocks the Times for failing to indicate in their article that Khosrowshahi is a board member, prior articles on the Intercept that mention eBay — including one written by Dayen himself — do not state that funder Pierre Omidyar’s fortune comes primarily from eBay, which he founded.

Greenwald:

Journalists should be judged by the journalism they produce, not by those who fund the outlets where they do it. The real issue is whether they demand and obtain editorial freedom. We have. But ultimately, the only thing that matters is the journalism we or any other media outlets produce.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I find Dayen’s article so baffling in its suspicion of the Times ability to maintain the quality of its coverage without executive meddling. Dayen even mentions that there’s “no indication the Times suppresses stories because of its board relationships”.

Media criticism is important. But generating a false controversy or creating an environment of mistrust is not the same thing, and — I think — muddies the message Dayen was trying to get across: when there may be even the impression of a conflict of interest, point it out. That goes for the Times; it also goes for the Intercept.


  1. Mark Ames, Pando:

    What all this adds up to is a journalistic conflict-of-interest of the worst kind: Omidyar working hand-in-glove with US foreign policy agencies to interfere in foreign governments, co-financing regime change with well-known arms of the American empire — while at the same time hiring a growing team of soi-disant “independent journalists” which vows to investigate the behavior of the US government at home and overseas, and boasts of its uniquely “adversarial” relationship towards these government institutions.

    ↩︎

The FCC’s Website Was Accepting Uploads of Virtually Any File Type

You might have already seen this amazing PDF that appeared earlier tonight on fcc.gov:

Dear American citizenry,

We’re sorry Ajit Pai is such a filthy spineless cuck.

Sincerely,

The FCC

That’s it. That’s the whole statement, with the exception of some FCC-like letterhead. It’s looks pretty much like an authentic FCC document, and it’s hosted on fcc.gov, so why would you doubt its authenticity? Aside from, you know, how obviously ridiculous it is.

Guise Bule explains:

Somewhat incredibly I am the first tech writer on the planet to break this story, but even more incredibly the FCC lets you upload any file to their website and make that file publicly accessible using the FCC.gov domain.

[…]

People seem to be experimenting uploading different filetypes, so far they have managed pdf/gif/ELF/exe/mp4 files up to 25MB in size, which means that you could easily host malware on the FCC.gov website right now and use it in phishing campaigns that link to malware on a .gov website.

For years, we’ve been helping our family members navigate dangers on the web by pointing out things like the HTTPS icon in a browser, so they can be more certain that what they’re downloading or interacting with is legitimate. And what could be more legitimate than a .gov domain with an SSL certificate?