Big Tech Beware, Congress Is Learning Ad Tech Lingo

Allison Schiff, senior editor, AdExchanger

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Allison Schiff, senior editor at AdExchanger. It’s part of a series of perspectives from AdExchanger’s editorial team.

A lot of people in the ad industry probably don’t know exactly what Google’s Ads Data Hub is.

And yet there was a Republican lawmaker from North Dakota with pointed questions about it during last week’s House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing on the market power of online platforms.

Actually, House reps spent quite a lot of time talking about ad tech at the more than five-hour hearing, which featured testimony from, and the slow roasting of, the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Whether a breakup is in the cards or not, politicians are beginning to get into the weeds and big tech should be worried.

Granted, a number of congresspeople used their time to lob allegations about supposed anti-conservative bias and one senior statesman from Wisconsin, confused Facebook with Twitter.

But setting aside the theatrics and odd fumbles, the questions were far more on point than we have seen at previous hearings, especially when it came to advertising and the interplay between privacy, data collection and competition.

Then

At previous hearings at which tech CEOs have testified, many lawmakers have routinely asked misinformed questions and demonstrated a lack of understanding of how technology works.

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before a joint hearing of the Senate and Commerce committees in April 2018 over data misuse following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked, “If I’m emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”

Later that year, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing examining Google’s data collection practices, Sundar Pichai fielded a series of hostile questions from Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who in a bit of political theater held his iPhone in the air and demanded that Pichai answer “yes” or “no” as to whether Google could use his device to track him across the room. When Pichai tried to explain that the reality is more nuanced than that – the level of tracking depends on a user’s settings – Poe cut him off and snarked, “You make $100 million a year, you ought to be able to answer that question!”

Now

But this time, the lawmakers had done their homework to prepare for the hearing, or at least their staffers had, by consulting with antitrust experts and academics in the field. Subcommittee members also benefited from the fact that they’ve been elbow-deep in a now nearly complete year-long investigation into competition in the digital markets.

For example, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-ND, wanted to know if, regardless of privacy concerns, Google’s decision to cut off third-party access to YouTube inventory via AdX reduced competition for demand-side platforms on YouTube.

Armstrong also wanted to know about Google’s move in April 2018 to restrict buyers from exporting the DoubleClick ID in the lead-up to GDPR enforcement.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., brought up the YouTube Measurement Program and news reports that YouTube has “been making it difficult for independent auditing companies, like OpenSlate, to independently audit” brand safety.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., cut right to the chase, with a concise description of how Google makes its money in the online advertising marketplace, noting that anyone who wants to buy or sell on Google’s exchange needs to go through “a middleman, like Google’s DV360 and Google Ads.”

Jayapal called attention to the problems that arise when one company controls both the buy side and the sell side. “I worked on Wall Street a very long time ago,” she said. “There are reasons that insider trading is regulated.”

Comic: Asking The Tough QuestionsAnd there were incisive questions from Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., about Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick in 2007. Back then, Google’s chief legal adviser testified before the Senate antitrust subcommittee that Google wouldn’t be able to merge DoubleClick’s database of web browsing activity with personally identifiable information. In 2016, Demings said, “Google went ahead and merged this data anyway.”

These are just a few examples.

The days of lawmakers using high-profile hearings to try and score political points with their constituents or using their time with tech titans to get a little ad hoc tech support are obviously far from over.

But measured, intelligent questioning is starting to break through the noise.

Follow Allison Schiff (@OSchiffey) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.