Is Antitrust Law Appropriate to Regulate Google and Facebook?

Recently Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, publicly criticized Google and Amazon for their ruthlessness and size, actually and provocatively citing past government breakups of big private utilities like Standard Oil. If you’re surprised that someone in Trump’s DOJ would poke big business and invoke the progressive antitrust regulation of the past, some explanation is in order. 

The government has always regulated the market, so “free markets” have always been a kind of mythical creature. What governments typically do is regulate “competition,” but that doesn’t just mean keeping firms from becoming too big or stopping them from establishing monopolies through sheer size alone. It also means regulating certain behaviors, if those behaviors limit the choices or distort the autonomy of consumers. This is what’s behind the recent drive to use antitrust regulation to control big infotech. 

For example, digital advertising has both crowded out local and independent news, and intruded on consumer privacy. Both of those effects could be justification for antitrust regulation because that private data can be used in ways that disadvantage competitors who do not mine such data. Digital advertising is also a ripe target for regulation because this year, it’s expected to “exceed TV and print advertising for the first time ever,” and the Trump reelection team “is doubling down on its digital ad strategy,” according to CNN.

Just three companies–Google, Facebook, and Amazon–account for 70 percent of spending on digital ads, so that short list is another antitrust red flag. 

There is increasing public pressure to apply antitrust law to these big data giants. The public doesn’t like the Faustian bargain that has been made—search the internet and connect with others all you want, largely for free, but the companies get to surveil you “across the whole web” and use that data in any way they want. It’s like liberty is being traded for the right to communicate and gather knowledge. And in the meantime, competitors like Yelp have complained that the access power of Google has been used to crowd the smaller players out. Traditional data append and email vendors now represent just a sliver of the consumer data market.

“Outside of Google, Facebook, and a few others, the rest of the market, which includes thousands and thousands of independent news publishers (that depend on digital advertising as their primary source of revenue), will shrink by 11 percent” this year.

Sometimes size prevents competitors from developing. This can be true even if the size doesn’t translate into higher costs for the consumer. In fact, the largest tech companies today allow most of their services to be used for free, so we can’t really rely on price to test the assumptions of antitrust law. The data those companies gain in the process is really the problem, because the ability to take that data (which other companies have no access to precisely because those companies give their services away for free) and “identify untapped and under-served markets, spot potential competitors and prevent them from developing – the kind of edge that antitrust law is meant to thwart.” Antitrust regulation may also be warranted because those large companies create “natural monopolies.” Now, in the past, some natural monopolies were seen as acceptable as long as they were subject to additional antitrust scrutiny, like “price controls and oversight boards.” One could argue that Facebook, which is very close to being a natural monopoly, ought to be subject to a special government oversight board just for it. 

The European Union hasn’t wasted any time or parsed out any nuances here. Since 2010, the EU has investigated Google for antitrust violations three times and charged Google with violating EU competition law with Google Shopping, AdSense, and the Android system. The Google Shopping and Android charges stuck, and the company has handed over €8 billion to the European body. 

Despite this scrutiny (or maybe because of it), Google is acting impetuous and bold. Just a few days ago, the company, fully aware that it’s under antitrust scrutiny, announced that it was buying another company, the data analytics firm Looker, for $2.6 billion. It’s hard not to surmise that the company is testing the government to see who blinks.

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Big Data, Business, and Politics

Some candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary are marketing themselves like products, running solely on familiarity—presumably like the familiarity of your favorite neighborhood restaurant or a carmaker whose models you keep buying over the years. Others are using a radically different approach: They are building movements while they campaign, because they see themselves as activist leaders, not products. So these campaigns are building movements, “thoughtfully and deliberately designed to create an unprecedented grassroots movement driven by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.”

We hear and read these all the time: shallow comparisons between running businesses and running political campaigns—particularly where the use of data, social media, and other infotech are concerned.

It’s not entirely unfounded. After all, big political firms do make many of the same mistakes that businesses make where tech and data are concerned. For example, while I might not put it in the stark terms that he does, there’s something to Igor Lys’s comments in a recent post that many of the promises of big data in politics, just as in business, are false, based on the assumption that “big data allows reliable prediction.” I do think it’s futile to “predict” outcomes and instead that it’s better to use data in combination with other forms of information gathering. Lys agrees, writing that “the real use these people make of massive data collection and analysis concerns less the prediction and the manipulation of the future result, than the better analysis of the already existing ones.”

Political campaigns might also parallel business practices in efforts to capture email addresses of visitors that don’t end up donating money (or in business parlance, buy the product). Such sites might use pop-up windows to offer free newsletter subscriptions in exchange for an email address and use email append and verification services to build powerful databases of supporter contacts and preferences.

But while both political campaigns and businesses analyze data and collect contact info, I am also cautious about drawing too many parallels between, on the one hand, an endeavor whose primary goal is to make profits and one whose primary goal is to engage people into voting for, financially supporting, and working for political candidates or issues.

Here’s why political engagement, even through data use, is different from profit-seeking: Profits are extracted from workers’ labor and paid to owners or shareholders. These are very exclusive dividends. But political support grows as relationships among people. Political support, and political solidarity, are not finite and can’t be exclusively owned or claimed. A group of volunteers for a campaign may feel that political energy growing inside of them and when they share it with others, that energy grows rather than thins out. I don’t have less of it when I give it to you.  

This is why it’s important to use data in combination with direct political participation, such as social media engagement, canvassing, and campaign communications. For example, you can use your data to plan solid social media messaging strategies, to nuance the language on a candidate or issue website, or to pick the appropriate language for your campaign emails. Those messages invite different kinds of interaction, from campaign volunteers reaching out to vocal supporters of a campaign on social media, to a web form offering many different options for a supporter’s participation. Businesses sell products and services and the entire process is rather binary: will you buy the thing, if yes, then profit into the hands of owners and shareholders. There’s not much else a loyal customer can do beyond buy more products and refer others to do the same.

None of this is to say that pouring massive amounts of money into big data operations will have an effect even if it doesn’t help build an organic movement. Michael Bloomberg’s plan to use big data to help defeat Trump is a notable example of an effort that will probably have an effect even if it doesn’t empower people politically beyond voting. But an approach that includes participation and lots of interaction produces organizations —like Bernie Sanders’ campaign— that have strength beyond their numbers.

And, although I recently wrote that small donor acquisition efforts rely on creating a sense of urgency (which some may see as similar to creating consumer desire), these efforts are really ultimately about creating political communities. Sure, we can tailor social media ad campaigns based on appeals to different interests and demographics, but the end goal is to get invite these people’s participation through small donations as alternatives to courting large sums of corporate or millionaire money. And such courtship of small donors almost always includes inviting them into the interactive and participatory aspects of a campaign.

This isn’t some hypothetical or abstract philosophical assumption. Key voting blocs for the Democrats want big ideas and morally sound positions from candidates going into 2020. Knowing the difference in ethos between a political campaign and a business selling products or services is critical in appealing to the values of those voters who will create a new majority in the coming decades.

Who is Mike Gravel?

Who is Mike Gravel?

Adriel has been volunteering with the Mike Gravel 2020 campaign as it seeks to qualify this anti-war candidate for the Democratic Primary Election debates. This is a guest post from Duncan Gammie. 

Mike Gravel is running for President and needs your help. But who is he? Gravel, the 88 year old former Senator from Alaska made history in 1971 when he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and is attempting to make history again in 2020 with his campaign for President. Gravel has a strong record as an anti-war, anti-imperialist politician, and has decided to enter the race for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination in order to force certain issues in foreign policy and domestic. The campaign needs sixty-five thousand individual donations to make it to the debate stage, and so far has more donations than many of the other so-called ‘mainstream’ campaigns. In 2008, the last time Gravel ran for President, he made it onto the Democratic debate stage and made a strong performance that continues to resonate today. It is interesting to note that many of the issues that Gravel forced back in 2008, and for which he was roundly disparaged by the pundit class, have entered mainstream Democratic discourse.

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“Anti-war.” – photo by Eric Kelly,  erickelly.us

This time, the rules are different. The idea behind having individual donations become a benchmark for who gets in the debates or not was due in part to the paradigm shift in campaign funding brought on by the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Today, small-dollar donations (and currently the Gravel campaign is asking folks to donate as little as one dollar, if only to meet the requirement to enter the debates) are a significant indicator of grassroots support for your campaign – which, if true, would suggest that Mike Gravel’s 2020 campaign for President, in terms of how much people have decided to donate already, has much more support than campaigns that were thought to be front runners. It is also important to note that the overall number of donations is the best indicator of such grassroots support, rather than total fundraising, since the latter could be achieved with a few high-dollar donors. To donate to the Mike Gravel 2020 campaign is easy, and you can donate online. Gravel has long had a history of bucking the party establishment, and forgoing the easy route many politicians take of catering to their wealthy donors’ every whim, and instead has decided to fight for the rights of all people. His anti-war record has been vindicated again and again by the judgements of history, and it is time to bring Mike Gravel onto the Democratic debate stage once more – and now that it is so easy way to donate, there truly is no excuse.

Seniors See Expanded Benefits Under Bernie Sanders Medicare for All Plan

Seniors See Expanded Benefits Under Bernie Sanders Medicare for All Plan

The simplest, clearest description of how Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders signature “Medicare for All” proposal would affect seniors comes from PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site run by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists:

Under Sanders’ plan, after a four-year transition period, all [Medicare] components would be replaced with a health care plan that includes vision, hearing and dental coverage, as well as stronger financial protections.

There would be no premiums or cost-sharing requirements, other than limited cost-sharing (up to $200 per year) on prescription drugs. Patients would be allowed to go to any provider, not limited by a network.

“Medicare for All expands Medicare, does not obliterate it, as Donald Trump says,” PolitiFact, November 2, 2018

PolitiFact jumped into the debate over the impacts of Sanders’ reform because of Donald Trump’s lies. However, it isn’t just Trump lying about Medicare for All. Health insurance is a trillion dollar global industry – and the Sanders plan would do away with them. In the Medicare for All proposal’s “single-payer” model, the federal government would pay all health care provider bills.

The health insurance companies and their network of subsidized allies (subsisting on consulting retainers, foundation donations) are going to work even harder than Trump to scare seniors about the Sanders plan. They will lie.

Here is an example from National Review (I am purposefully not linking to the article, which I will explain fully below):

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Now that we’ve laid the groundwork – Sanders’ Medicare for All plan will greatly benefit seniors – let’s look at how information companies are promoting falsehoods about Medicare for All. And how we can fight it.

Google searches account for two-thirds of all search traffic in the U.S. And topical searches surge when an issue is in the news or on the ballot – sometimes spiking tens or even hundreds of thousands of times vs. average traffic for a search term. It is no hyperbole to estimate that tens of millions of seniors and their family members will search for the impacts of Medicare for all on their household. It is likely that most Americans will find information about Medicare for All through a Google search before the November 2020 presidential election.

And there is already a big problem for proponents – like me and Senator Sanders – of single-payer Medicare for All.

Searching for “Medicare for All” and “Sanders” will provide results that are reasonably balanced – including Sanders’ Senate site, prominently. 

However, pop on over to search results for “seniors” and “Medicare for All,” and the results are dramatically different. And while search volume is lower here today, you can bet that as we get closer to key dates in the primary, health insurance industry consultants will be doing everything they can to drive a wedge between seniors and Sanders and the other Medicare for All Democrats. (Sanders greatly outperforms among young people, but older voters – the current Medicare demographic – are showing some preference for a conservative Democrat like Joe Biden, or for Donald Trump. Groups like Silvers4Sanders are working to change that.)

The search results for seniors and Medicare for All are heavily loaded with health insurance industry propaganda published through opinion columns in mainstream publications. Only a handful of results are neutral, and none are pro-Medicare for All.

So how do supporters of single-payer Medicare for All combat this? Well, we have to get a bit technical. It’s something we used to call, “link juice.”

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Search engines like Google may run on the advertising that crowds the top of your results, but to remain relevant, they must present the most accurate search results possible. But they do this with data signals interpreted by software programs that are much less sophisticated than human brains (if you’re up for a foul example, just Google “Santorum”).

Why would searching for the impacts of Medicare for All on seniors give such biased results? Well, the insurance companies and their allies have great credentials and connections and paid PR agencies that help them place misinformation and propaganda in mainstream news outlets as “opinion.” However, Google does little to distinguish opinion from “news” results and gives a lot of prominence to more mainstream, establishment publications that include more objective reporting along with opinion.

Thankfully, just like millions of small donors have made Sanders the presidential frontrunner, we can do the same for Medicare for All and overcome the machine-like use of the existing system of privilege. We can have health care for all with no provider cost to the patient. We can make sure that Seniors who search Google for Medicare for All get the fair and full story.

Just like big donations can make a candidate appear strong, health insurance companies and their allies hope their publications (and TV appearances, of course) will fool seniors. No!

Please talk to your progressive friends who have blogs. Share this blog post with them. Ask them to write their own blog post that supports Medicare for All. Ask them to link descriptions of Medicare for All’s benefits for seniors to honest third-party descriptions of Medicare for All – particularly those that already show up high in search results.

A couple examples from searches today:

Medicare for All Will Benefit Seniors a Great Deal

Improved Medicare For All: Better Care at a Lower Cost for Seniors

Don’t link to lies about Medicare for All.

Let’s send thousands of signals to Google that tell its search engine where to find good information about Medicare for All and seniors.

The fight for Medicare for All isn’t just on the internet – across the U.S., we’re going door to door with National Nurses United. Sign up here to help reach people in your neighborhood with the truth about Medicare for All. 

We also have to reach seniors by mail – the kind of data demographic sorting of consumer information where I rely on longtime client and partner Accurate Append.

Every senior in every family in the U.S needs to hear about the benefits of Medicare for All – including dental, vision, hearing aids, and long-term care – in face-to-face conversations, by mail, by truth-tellers in the media, and when they type a search into their browser.

A Deeper Look at Segmentation

A Deeper Look at Segmentation

The main takeaway from a discussion of segmenting is to stop sending the same emails to everyone. But there’s another important takeaway for those doing digital political campaigns: people are not all the same, everybody brings unique and important perspectives into your campaign, and acknowledging that goes a long way towards getting supporters to help out in the best ways they can.

Segmentation originally emerged as a marketing strategy for email advertising of products and services. So it feels a little awkward talking about marketing strategies in relation to digital political campaigning, especially since many of the campaigns we work on are quite a distance away from the values of corporate advertisers. Two things get me through the incongruency. First, I don’t see an alternative in this system to raising money, doing so quickly and efficiently, and utilizing some level of mass marketing to do it. At the present time in the present world, it costs money to elect candidates who will defend reproductive rights, resist deregulation, and—if we demand it and support the right candidates—ultimately move us away from a pay-to-play political system.

Second, I’ve seen, and been a part of, thoughtful campaigns that use emails as part of larger conversations, of which raising money is an honest part, but not the whole. Strategies like segmentation sound cheesy, and in many contexts they can be cheesy. But strategies to find the kind of campaign supporters you want to engage are also essential, and if done right, can be the opposite of depersonalizing.

Scholars of persuasion going all the way back to Aristotle have emphasized the importance of understanding the different needs and situations of audiences. While political constituents have many common values and beliefs, they may have many different ways of getting there. Good communicators understand not only those common values and beliefs, but particular people’s unique starting points and priorities.

Even really market-oriented consultants say that good segmentation is about thinking beyond where people are right now. In politics, that means that people will reveal their policy hopes, and their aspirations about the political culture they want to live, if your email engagement can ask the right questions. Surveys are obviously an effective way to do this.

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The process actually begins a couple of steps earlier. Email verification and appending for your voter lists is really important before you start sending pre-segmented emails that are designed to reach everyone on the voter list, because that’s the point where you’re most likely to have a lot of those emails land somewhere they don’t belong, whether that means bouncing or end up in the inboxes of those who don’t want them. So you’ll want to use an email verification, and email append with Accurate Append (including their lead validation) to get the best quality and coverage. Verification isn’t very expensive; it’s about a penny per email, and is worth it to avoid inbox penalties from email service providers.

From there, once you have an accurate list, you can email out a survey about issues in the district, with a simple landing page with little campaign branding so that people won’t feel like you’re baiting-and-switching them. The data from that survey will be like gold to your campaign team, allowing prioritization of subject matter for subsequent emails, social media engagement, and even traditional media engagement. Questions about voters’ income levels and ages can also inform both subject matter prioritization and fundraising, and you can also get that data from your vendor.  

Segmentation was one of the tactics in the Obama campaign team’s impressive use of email. Bloggers back in 2012 wrote enthusiastically about the campaign’s “detailed segmentation” that included sending different messages and asks to different levels of donors, or enthusiastic versus mild supporters. Committed supporters would receive a video, while undecided voters (yes, the campaign segmented them out too) received a chart showing job growth in Obama’s first term. Whatever might be said of Obama’s policies, he had a superior campaign team that made supporters feel like they were part of a larger vision. Every election, I work with candidates who have what I believe are critical and timely visions of policy. I want to know and respond to any information I can get about voters in those races.

While money is important, we know spending the most money doesn’t win elections (although the candidates who spend the most money usually win – it’s complicated, read the article). I think one thing that does win, when races are close, is candidates going the extra mile to understand and appropriately respond to their supporters, because doing so will inspire those supporters to put more energy and value into the campaign. Smart and thoughtful campaigns will append the gaps in their voter lists, gather specific information about the voters through surveys or other techniques, and then use segmentation to ask the appropriate voters for the appropriate things. None of that needs to be cynical or cheesy if you don’t want it to be.

Budgeting Your Digital Field Program

Here in California, voter ID programs are aided by a very complete file – phones, emails, addresses. In most voter ID programs, I also work with Accurate Append (client) to supplement voter files. If I don’t have emails or need more coverage, an email append can fill the gaps. Accurate Append’s services are essential for line-typing phones, where different contact methods are required for cells vs. landlines, and for validating emails.

Once your data is clean, using a simple calculator to estimate voter ID costs and frequency per contact method will help you determine where to deploy volunteers and how much you’ll need to spend to reach your goals.

Recently, I’ve been working on cost-analysis for voter IDs, and my firm is also beginning to use response data from our programs to create goals and budget for the meaningful interactions that precede a hard ID and help determine the health of a campaign. The sample calculator below includes social ads, bulk mail, and cost-efficient products from some of my favorite voter outreach solutions: CallHub for computer-based texting and dialers, VoterCircle for an influencer peer-to-peer program, and Ecanvasser for app and paper-based door-to-door canvassing. There are several notes on the original spreadsheet linked below the embed.

Voter ID program results are highly variable based upon scripts and targeting. Green numbers are variable and will change the results and costs totals when updated (you’ll need to copy the original spreadsheet). If you have suggestions or feedback, please email me, adriel@adrielhamptongroup.com. Hope you find this helpful!

Original Spreadsheet

Growing a Congressional Campaign Email List: Append vs. Acquire

One of the biggest challenges in running a Congressional race is keeping up the required fundraising pace. Email fundraising can help take some of the pressure off the candidate, but how to grow your list?

After starting with friends and family, it basically comes down to append vs. acquire. Here’s why I think a good email append strategy comes out slightly ahead here.

Append

Voter files often have some email coverage in place – the California file includes email addresses, and software like the VAN and PDI have email coverage but may charge fees to use those addresses (you’ll need a campaign-friendly bulk email system no matter what you do here – MailChimp will not allow the kind of voter prospecting I’m outlining).

For purposes of this exercise, let’s say you have about 300,000 voters on your Congressional voter file. An email append from a professional vendor like Accurate Append (client) will give you back deliverable email addresses for about one in three people on file. These emails come from consumer opt-ins throughout the web – however, they haven’t signed up for your list.

This list of 100,000 emailable people will cost you about $6,000, and may include data sweeteners like additional phone numbers for your voter file, and address standardization and correction using the Postal Service’s National Change of Address database.

What do you need to do to get these folks onboard?

First, I email a survey about issues in the district – one a landing page with little to no candidate/campaign branding, if possible. Typically this gives me an open rate of about 22% and perhaps a few hundred people take the survey. I included a prominent “leave this list” note with an unsubscribe link, also letting the prospect know I am reaching out because they are a voter in the district. Perhaps 2,000 of the original 100,000 unsubscribe.

Initially, I will be able to email about 20,000 of these folks, maybe more if I try additional survey tactics – however, I keep a very light touch to keep spam complaints low. I’ll begin to ease these 20,000 openers who didn’t unsubscribe onto my list. And for fundraising, I’ll bring in about $300 per email ($15 per thousand emails). I’ll estimate a that about half the list unsubscribes over the first couple months – but by that time, I should have brought in about $6,000 with 20 emails, paying for the cost of the list. Now I have an asset of about 10,00 voters who will still give about $150 per email, or $1,500 per month. Start early and this is a solid way to grow your list – especially if you’re reaching these local emailable voters with volunteer appeals and generally recruiting their support.

Acquire

An email acquisition strategy generally means partnering with a company that does this full time, or else investing a lot of ingenuity into a petition strategy. I co-founded Really American to help with large-scale signature opt-in acquisition efforts, and will say that getting district-specific emails is difficult and expensive.

But for this exercise, let’s say you can get 6,000 opt-in emails for your district for $6,000. ($1 each is a low estimate here.) These folks opt-in through a petition with your logo on it – but that doesn’t automatically make them happy subscribers! You’ll need to warm them up using Action Network Ladders or some other form of welcome series.

As you begin emailing these folks, you may raise twice as much per thousand vs. the appends, $30. That’s $180 per email, and if you send 10 a month, it’ll take just over three months to recoup your cash investment. You’ll also lose subscribers, ending up with perhaps 4,000 at the end of the first quarter of emails. That’ll be ongoing revenue of about $1,200 a month.

Append or acquire, there’s no easy money – but nurturing an email program can certainly pay for itself while achieving many of your outreach goals. Please read my article in Campaigns & Elections on content that nurtures a list to find more ideas.