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The #ITU, the Internet, and the ethics of marketing

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27 November 2012
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A week ago a good friend of mine friend gave up on his marketing career, announcing in a status update on his Facebook page:

“I have gone and stepped off the ledge that was my advertising career.

Too many issues that I simply can’t reconcile with my values; too many viewpoints that are at odds with my own. I should have done this years ago.”

Marketeers are unloved. Survey after survey shows the public likes us less than most professions.

Why are marketeers so unloved? Is it because we trade in smoke and mirrors? We ‘position’, we create ‘story’ ‘angles’, we ‘brand’. The perception is we do all that at the expense of – authenticity.

Authenticity has become a buzzword with respect to the internet and social media. Like much net theory, this one is utopian. It goes that because social media is direct, because it cuts out the middlemen – like the mainstream media, and agents – and because everybody can and do publish – people expect others on social media to be the real deal.

But as mainstream media is being swallowed by social media, it’s bringing its ways and less than utopian values with it. Straight coding programmers play second fiddle to bamboozling wordsmiths, spartan user interfaces has long been replaced with persuasive design and manipulative gamification. Where once was non hierarchical net communities, macro (and micro) celebrities reign.

Can the Internet stick to its Utopian roots?
Because of a leak we now know that in September, Matthias Lüfkens (Twitter), Head of Digital Strategy for global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, spoke to the International Telecoms Union (ITU) in Geneva. The ITU is a United Nations body tasked with regulating telecoms.

Many have expressed concern – quite rightly in my opinion – that the ITU will be used by nation states as one way to try to put the unruly Internet genie back in the bottle. From Hollywood to Beijing, the Internet has made enemies in powerful places in the last two years. It should watch its back.

The ITU is meeting at a conference called WCIT next week in Dubai to amend its regulations. It will meet behind closed doors and the Internet will be the main topic. Only governments have a vote.

Already there are leaks of documents that show that countries such as Russia want to use the opportunity to not only wrestle control over the Internet (away from the USA), but also to interfere in more insidious ways. For example, an ITU rule is proposed to let countries monitor Internet traffic routed through or to their countries, allowing them to eavesdrop or block access.

As the WSJ points out, the self-regulating Internet:

“…means no one has to ask for permission to launch a website, and no government can tell network operators how to do their jobs. The arrangement has made the Internet a rare place of permissionless innovation.”

Some of this innovation is not about business, of course, it includes porn, spam, and much besides. It includes innovation in the form of sedition that helped Egyptians mobilise against an oppressive government.

Which brings me back to my point about marketeers, truth and Mr Lüfkens of Burson-Marsteller. You will remember that B-M is the same firm that helped Facebook smear Google two years ago.

Mr Lüfkens was brought in by the ITU to talk about social media on an agenda about the Dubai WCIT conference which also noted that there was a high likelihood of:

“an intensive anti-ratification campaign in OECD countries, based on the so-called lack of openness of the WCIT process, resulting in a significant number of countries refusing to ratify the new ITRs (the so-called ACTA scenario).”

ACTA was a secretive treaty that was shelved last year along with SOPA and PIPA. These laws and treaties threatened the Internet’s open architecture, but through a largely grass-roots-driven campaign Internet campaigners won the day.

But, notes the September agenda hopefully, “our communication campaign can mitigate” a similar outcome. Besides Mr Lüfkens, Mr Christian Schroeder, the CEO of Lambie-Nairn, was also on the program – to talk about ‘branding’.

Now, we can only speculate as to the advice that Mr Lufkens and Schroeder gave the ITU. We can only speculate as to what agency is currently conducting the ITU’s counter communications campaign.

It does make me ashamed of the marketing profession. In an information society, where as marketeers spreading information is our bread and butter, do marketeers not have a special responsibility to guard the free flow of information?

We aren’t all like that

Some of us in marketing would like to point Mr Lufkens and Schroeder in the direction of Wael Ghonim, Google’s Marketing Manager for the Middle-East. It was on Ghonim’s Facebook page in honour of a slain young man that the Egyptian uprising’s date was first announced. A courageous act for which he was abducted.

Ghonim is not the only marketeer fighting for an open society.

Earlier this year, Swedish public relations firm Studio Total, at great risk flew across the borders of Belarus in a light aircraft and dropped hundreds of little teddy bears near the town of Ivenets and on the outskirts of the Belarusian capital Minsk.

The bears came down with little parachutes and labels calling for freedom of speech and human rights in Europe’s last remaining hard-line dictatorship.

The difference between Mr Ghonim, the pranksters of Studio Total, and Lufkens-Schroeder? That is something for us to ponder.

And in the meantime, especially if you’re a marketeer, defend the Internet and authenticity this week.

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