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Virtual Surveillance Challenges Privacy, as We All Log On

Media power takes on new dimensions as we move into an “always on” digital mediascape, where questions loom concerning not just the media that citizens will consume, but also the digital environment they will consume it in.

At this pivotal moment the Internet is becoming evermore subjugated to commercial interests of a cartel of domineering big media corporations.

A Concentrated Participatory Medium?

One recent study showed that only 20 domains (websites) capture 39% of all time spent online by US users.

Considering that the Internet is technically an open medium, this is an amazingly high level of user concentration., which is owned by News Corporation, commands an astounding 11.9% of US users’ time online. Bearing in mind the USA has well over two hundred million Internet users, this kind of concentration of online website usage creates huge vectors of power.

Chief among the online brands are the ever-popular social networking websites. In the period between September 2006 to February 2007 the number of visitors to the social networking website jumped 75% to 24.8 million users worldwide and the number of visitors to grew 26% to 98.5 million visitors in the same period.

“More than half of all Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use some online social networking site such as MySpace or Facebook according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.”

Many of the most powerful online media websites are owned by some of the largest media corporations. Fox Interactive Media (News Corp) spent $580 million to acquire

Google, a large and more powerful media corporation, owns one of the most popular blog platforms: Google also purchased Youtube, the most popular online video site on the Internet, for $1.65 billion.

Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL Time Warner own other popular platforms. Googles chief executive officer Eric Schmidt recently estimated that Google buys start-up web companies every few days, and is quoted saying, “I think the pace [of Google buyouts] will accelerate”.

For Who’s Interest is the Internet Being Shaped?

This level of power over the internet, the most powerful medium the world has ever seen, begs the question: how are major web owners using these online properties?

New commercial incursions by big online media enterprises including the widely disdained “Facebook Beacon” make explicit what new media giants have been doing quietly for some time: searching for new and more effective ways to sell our attention, our clicks, and our private information to advertisers and marketers.

The Facebook Beacon system monitored Facebook users activities on partnering websites and notified the users’ friends about purchases made. It’s not surprising that this both ruined a few Christmas surprises and outraged many when they realized the level of surveillance they were exposed to.

Although Facebook recently bowed to public pressure and made this referral system only apply to those who opt in, it was also recently revealed that beacon continues to monitor Facebook users activities on the web even if they are logged out of Facebook, regardless of if they opt in or out of the beacon service.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described the Facebook advantage to advertisers this way, “You will be able to select exactly the audience you want to reach, and we will only show your ads to them. We know exactly what gender someone is, what activities they are interested in. their location, country, city or town, interests, gender”.

Facebook may have misjudged its audience and taken privacy invasions a step too far for its users to passively accept, but this kind of surveillance and data collection is the norm with the new media cartel.

Myspace has its own “HyperTargeting” system described by Michael Barrett, Chief Revenue Officer for MySpace parent division Fox Interactive Media, as "an ad platform that translates our massive amounts of self-expressed user data into highly targeted, interest-based segments, enabling us to better serve the exact right ad to the right person at the right time".

Media companies are working with marketers to segment online participants into target groups, and to quote a marketing company, “corralling your next online movement--by controlling and limiting what's headed your way, in the form of packaged, personalized content."

The marketing company Future Now's boasts of something called a "Persuasion Architecture" that,
“provides a detailed process for persuading your visitors to take the actions you want them to take.

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