Google and Facebook’s dominance of the digital advertising market is well documented. Pivotal Research’s Brian Wieser estimated at the end of 2017 that these two companies “accounted for 73% of all digital advertising.” In the same report, he also estimated that the duopoly accounted for 83% of all growth, which means their grip is only getting tighter.
Scale is the main reason these companies dominate. Facebook has a huge user base, particularly when you factor in its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp. And let’s not forget its “like” buttons on more than 8.4 million websites, a number Facebook recently disclosed in its answers to lawmakers’ questions during the Cambridge Analytica hearings. Despite lingering legal questions, those “like” buttons continue to collect data about the sites visited by Facebook users regardless of whether those consumers are logged in to the platform. Even more concerning, the buttons also collect data about non-Facebook users. The result is a massive and rich database of consumers’ personal information and activity, which Facebook offers to advertisers for targeting ads to very specific audiences on and off Facebook’s properties.
Google also offers hugely popular consumer services including its search, Gmail, Chrome, and maps applications. Of course, it mines them for very sensitive information about consumers (e.g. personal messages, friend networks, interests, location). Oh, and let’s not forget that Google has a hand in every part of the digital advertising supply chain. Like Facebook, Google is ubiquitous and nearly impossible for consumers to avoid.
Some might be tempted to argue that these companies serve as competitors to one another. Except that they don’t compete on price. The fact that these services are offered free of charge has enabled their lawyers to shield them (so far) from any antitrust scrutiny in the U.S. What they really compete over is which company can collect more data about consumers. This unbridled competition for data is even more corrosive as it lacks transparency and they offer no effective choice mechanisms for consumers.
Consumer groups assert that this dynamic is bad for privacy. And, they might have a point: Consumer trust is at all time low while adoption of ad blockers continues to rise. Yet, Google and Facebook haven’t felt the impact of this lack of consumer trust. That’s because these companies don’t care where ads are served and they have virtually unlimited places to serve ads (meaning ads can appear near any content, which can create a negative impact by association). Instead, other tech companies, marketers, and publishers bear the brunt of consumer ire.
A dangerous game
But, there is more going on here. Facebook and Google have created a feeding frenzy in the vast, and expanding, data pool. Other companies recognize that have to jump in or risk their ability to compete for digital advertising dollars. Verizon bought AOL and Yahoo! solely to have more ad technologies and inventory. Combined with the significant information about the activities of their user base, this might give them an opportunity to compete for the duopoly-dominated digital advertising dollars. Not to be outdone, AT&T bought AppNexus, the largest independent ad technology company. It’s hard to fault these companies for joining forces given the world they’re competing in.
From my perspective, the duopoly is creating a giant game of musical chairs. If this dynamic is allowed to continue, it’s not hard to imagine that publishers will be forced to pair up with a telecom provider or to form giant conglomerates in order to ensure that they have a chair when the music stops.
Unfortunately, this will have profound effects on well-known premium publisher brands and an even more devastating impact on the ability for new voices to emerge. Ironically, the internet was supposed to increase the number and diversity of voices. Instead, the duopoly is quietly reshaping the web into a dystopian data collection machine.