Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein was never so true. If you want to understand what’s happening in politics, “Follow the money.”
Consider the new FCC proposal to mandate rules for set top boxes in your home. Even though you have never had so many options and choices for video, the FCC wants to require you to add a second box inside your home. Why? To help Google distribute television.
Today, you can get TV from cable or satellite, as well as Netflix, Roku, Apple and all sorts of other companies competing for your dollar. So why does Google deserve an FCC handout to get in to the TV business — especially when every other company competing in this space has managed to do so without an FCC leg up?
Follow the money.
A leading Wall Street analyst, Jason Bazinet, recently looked at the economic fallout from this idea and found that the set top box mandate is really about a massive transfer of huge chunks of the TV business to tech companies like Google — essentially a government giveaway that will pile new monopolies on Google’s already heaping plate and give it a back door into the TV business without negotiating for programming or paying a dime for the rights. Set top box “competition” is merely a decoy.
How does the FCC’s proposal do that? To start, it would allow Google to scrape all the programming running into your home and relay it through its own box. Then Google can serve you up its own ads, track your viewing habits, bury disfavored shows in its mysterious search algorithms and gain access to valuable revenue streams like on demand and digital rights, local advertising, home shopping and more. And remember — Google is not paying for the privilege or competing with the people who brought you Mr. Robot, Jane the Virgin, or Broad City. It isn’t bringing you any new programming at all. The FCC is simply giving Google the right to exploit your existing programs for free.
Google is usually more subtle. It has used control of our Internet searches to elevate favored businesses while killing off those who refuse to pay for “search priority.” We see the result in industries such as newspapers and music, where content has been similarly ‘scraped” and advertising dollars commandeered. But this is different. This is a naked power play in which Google is controlling a captive FCC to get the government to hand it virtually the entire TV distribution business.
What does a world in which Google controls television look like? Most people now understand that “free” Google products actually bring a very high price as Google profiles and mines our data across its many platforms — tracking our location through Android phones, reading our email, compiling our Internet searches and cataloging every website we visit, building profiles on each of us that would rival the NSA.
Consider a recent Atlantic Monthly article on Google cars, which wonders if automobile operating systems will start manipulating our lives, steering us towards Google’s allied products and paid sponsors and setting routes based on “suggested results” mined by the Google algorithm from the contents of our emails and web searches.
But despite its pervasive reach, Google has never gained a foothold in the TV market — a gaping hole in the company’s ability to profile and track Americans and a new opportunity to bombard us with Internet-style micro-targeted ads for the five hours a day the average American watches TV.
You don’t have to like satellite, cable or telco TV providers to think this smash-and-grab commandeering of private business deals is an abuse of government, particularly for an appointee of the Obama administration that has long eschewed the corrupting influence of lobbyists seeking cronyism arrangements.
And you don’t have to be Ed Snowden to worry that installing a Google box in every living room is going to bring an unacceptable cost in lost privacy for most Americans, especially as reports trickle out of TV interfaces (like the one Google can be expected to roll out) using their microphones to listen and exploit users’ home conversations.
This isn’t about regulation. We need regulations that protect our planet, rein in financial speculators and guarantee safe food and water. This is about an agency that’s given up looking for ways to rein Google in and strengthen competition.
The administration needs to stop the FCC from aiding and abetting a one-sided agenda that will hand even more power over our lives and privacy to the most intrusive monopoly the world has ever seen.
Ev Ehrlich is president of ESC Co., an economics consulting firm, and was undersecretary of commerce from 1993 to 1997.