Two seemingly unrelated things happened Monday that actually point directly at the future of the internet:
1. Verizon was scooped into admitting that it’s going to rename the combined zombie corpses of AOL and Yahoo “Oath,” which is a terrible name that comes second only to Tronc.
2. President Trump signed the bill that allows ISPs to share your browsing data without permission.
This is everything Verizon and AOL have been working toward over the past few years. Like every other broadband provider, Verizon wants to extract more revenue from its network by increasingly owning the media that travels over it.
But unlike AT&T (which bought DirecTV and is in the process of buying Time Warner) or Comcast (which bought NBCUniversal and invested in companies like BuzzFeed and our own Vox Media), Verizon’s plan is far more lowbrow: it’s going to churn out as much cheap content as it can from AOL and Yahoo and tell advertisers it can do a better job of delivering eyeballs because it has better ad-tracking capabilities than Google and Facebook.
What Verizon wants, more than anything, is a piece of Google’s ad business.
This isn’t a new or small plan — it’s been AOL CEO Tim Armstrong’s vision for years now. (Armstrong was the head of Google ad sales for years before taking over AOL.) AOL has been buying marketing and ad tech startups nonstop since Armstrong took over in 2009; they all have names that would cause normal, non-influencer humans to die in an explosion of pure shame. Millennial Media. RYOT. Adap.tv. Vidibile. Convertro. Buysight. Every single one of these companies is designed to better target advertising to you, the hapless AOL consumer.
What Verizon wants, more than anything, is a piece of Google’s ad business
Then there’s Armstrong’s purchase of The Huffington Post, which now seems like just a prelude to his conquest of Yahoo. HuffPo was once the ultimate in cheap scale, generating millions of free contributor page views on which to place all that ad tech, but Yahoo is next-level cheap scale. People still use Yahoo as a homepage and primary search engine. They look up financial data. They play fantasy sports and dive into databases of stats. Something... happens on Tumblr. Yahoo Mail can’t stop losing your passwords but it’s still massive. Yahoo delivers millions and millions of pages that cost almost nothing to produce, all waiting to be strip-mined of data and retargeted with advertising.
None of this was a secret when Verizon bought AOL — the Ad Age headline was straight-up “Ad-Tech, not Content, Is King in the Verizon-AOL Deal.” Can’t be any clearer than that.
“The ability to combine my browsing history and my location on the most personal and sensitive thing we own — the smartphone — with the tonnage inventory of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo is an interesting play,” says Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade group dedicated to better online advertising. “They know what they're doing. I just think it's bad for the marketplace overall.”
Killing net neutrality is next on the list
And now, with the new privacy not-rules, Verizon is free to take the data generated from the tracking supercookies it imposes on its network customers, mash it up with AOL’s ad stack, and promise advertisers hyper-targeted marketing information that can’t be blocked or stopped because Verizon will own both the pipes and an enormous amount of the content flowing through it.
The ISPs were explicit about what they wanted during the Congressional debates on the privacy rules — they have tons of consumer data because they own the pipes, and they want to be able to use that data without permission. Again, it wasn’t even subtle.
Verizon owns the networks that deliver the mobile data, along with lots of broadband internet to the home, plus the stores where many people buy their smartphones and the bloatware that runs on them. It wants to take the foundation and build itself up into an ISP, a content company, and an ad network, a corporate hydra that feeds on boardroom buzzwords like synergy and relevant content and generates names like Go90 and Oath.
Kint says Verizon’s plans are “very concerning.”
“Although Facebook and Google are clearly an [advertising] duopoly based on industry trends, Verizon, without net neutrality (their intention next) or privacy rules, is a chokepoint to consumer choice,” he says. “Verizon will be able to prioritize Oath's content. Imagine go90 getting priority over outside parties.”
As a reminder, Go90 was the disastrous video service Verizon is now completely rebooting with the team from yet another acquisition. We made this video when Go90 came out; the product was such an obvious disaster we had to selectively decide which clueless bits to focus on.
Oath might fail the same way Go90 has failed; it’s not like AOL and Verizon are terrific at executing these content-based ideas. But this is Verizon’s next big plan to generate revenue and growth — it’s a lot cheaper and simpler to extract revenue from hyper-targeted ads on the world’s biggest content farm than it is to compete against AT&T and Comcast in broadband deployment.
“I've been vocal about Verizon's very active role in stripping any consumer privacy protection from the market. It lowers the bar for everyone including Facebook and Google. That’s why the duopoly also reportedly supported the effort,” says Kint.
“I expect even more ad blocking and less trust of digital advertising, which ends up harming everyone that matters, including marketers, publishers, and importantly consumers.”
Whatever happens with Oath, it’s not a joke — it’s the beginning of a very important fight about ad tracking across the entire internet.