Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation.
Here’s what’s new with us:
As Russia began its attack on Ukraine last month, a San Francisco-based software company called Intercom released a statement in support of Ukrainians.
“We are actively monitoring the developing sanctions to ensure we’re following them: I want to confirm that we will not engage with the Russian government or military, and we will not sell Intercom in the embargoed regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, or Crimea,” wrote Intercom CEO Karen Peacock.
Intercom is one of many companies doing everything in their power to support Ukraine. They’ve even provided its customer relationship software for free to relief efforts and businesses across the country. But there is one thing they cannot stop: sending ad dollars to pro-Kremlin propaganda.
It’s not just them. Over the past few weeks, national brands have taken public stands against Russia. Dunkin Donuts has shut down operations in the country. Travel booking platform Kayak has changed its logo to the colors of the Ukranian flag. But they too cannot stop their cheery ads from running on Russian disinformation operations.
In fact, if you’re running a Google ad campaign, you can assume your budget is funding pro-Kremlin propaganda against your consent.
That’s because the biggest ad exchange in the world — Google — is still monetizing dozens of Russian disinformation operations despite telling advertisers otherwise. More importantly, it’s withholding the one critical piece of data that advertisers need to protect their ad spend from pro-Kremlin operatives: seller information.
In the past, this lack of ownership data has posed a brand safety risk for advertisers. But now, it has become a matter of life and death.
In today’s BRANDED, we’ll share how Google’s practice of concealing seller information is forcing advertisers to fund a war they oppose.
You might already be familiar with Know Your Customer (KYC) law. In the United States, banks are required to know who you are, where you live and what you do before they let you open a bank account. This is to help authorities track the flow of money around the world.
But no such equivalent exists in the digital advertising industry, even though it buys and sells a whopping $700B per year online (and growing). Intuitively, this seems bad. As an advertiser, you should be able to check in to see who is on the other end of your ad buy. You should not be walking around blindfolded, handing out suitcases filled with cash to strangers on the internet.
Once upon a time, Google agreed. In 2017, they joined the industry association Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) to push for a new standard they wanted all publishers to adopt as a way to create transparency for advertisers: the Ads.txt initiative.
Under this initiative, all publishers would publish an ads.txt file that would share the ad exchanges they have relationships with and their unique SellerIDs (ex: nytimes.com/ads.txt).
On the other end, ad exchanges would publish their own corresponding file, called sellers.json, a directory of their publishers, but also the domains and business name of the companies behind them (ex: rubiconproject.com/sellers.json). This contains the seller information.
Together, these corresponding files would allow advertisers to track media spend all the way to the end of the supply chain. A complete sellers.json file would contain the records of every account an ad exchange works with.
The DOMAIN and COMPANY NAME fields would tell us exactly who is behind every website.
With this information, advertisers would be able to trace their ad dollars directly to a business organization/LLC.
Google successfully spearheaded the industry-wide adoption of this initiative. Today, nearly all websites that run ads have published an ads.txt file. Then, Google completely sabotaged it.
Five years after it launched ads.txt, Google has still not published a complete sellers.json file.
Let’s put this in perspective. Google works with more than 2 million publishers, and advertisers can only obtain seller information for a tiny (still unknown) fraction of them. But it gets more unhelpful.
Most of the measly number of records they’ve released don’t even contain full sellers information. Only 21% of them include a company name and ~10% include a domain.
This is a problem, because the ads.txt initiative cannot work if the world’s biggest ad exchange does not participate. And it really seems like they don't want to. Google actually hides ownership information from advertisers by default.
Website owners have to go and manually choose to make this information public. (Here’s the help desk article with the instructions.)
Google “encourages” you to be transparent, but does not require it.
Excuse us, but opting into transparency? This defeats the whole purpose of ads.txt. Why is Google dragging its feet on its own initiative? Why refuse to give advertisers the transparency they need? It’s hard to tell. They’ve made all kinds of little excuses, including these ones they gave to industry mag AdExchanger in 2020:
And just in case those reasons backfire, they have a nice big one: to protect the little guys speaking truth to power. “If you are in a location where freedom of speech is not as protected, and you are posting content that is critical of certain things, that could be a potential risk,” a Google rep said in 2020. “We have to make sure we respect publishers’ security and safety.”
So noble. But it simply doesn’t add up. Google’s fellow trillion dollar peer in the advertising space, Amazon, has published a complete seller.json file — with none of the entries redacted.
While Google cosplays being a man of the people, advertisers are stuck with an unusable set of tools and no way to trace many billions of dollars. Whatever Google’s real reasons are, it benefits no one — except Google, money launderers, and the Russian state.
On March 23rd, Google announced “we will pause monetization of content that exploits, dismisses, or condones the war.” Here’s a small sample of sites we’ve found that are doing exactly that, all running Google ads. (We have many more.)
We don't know who owns them, who they are affiliated with or who they may be working for. What we do know is these websites intend to mislead and confuse Ukranians, Russians and the English-speaking world about the Russian invasion.
Google is clearly not doing its job. That’s expected. But right now, it’s not letting ANYONE do the job either.
With seller information from Google’s sellers.json directory, we would be able to begin mapping networks of websites that are coordinating disinformation efforts. We would be able to identify links between operations based in Russia and operations running outside of Russia, working to promote Russia’s war. We would also be able to identify which nodes in the adtech supply chain that may be intentionally funneling money towards wartime efforts.
And then we could cut them off. Without it, we are at a dead-end.
At present, there are only two options for conscientious advertisers, and you’re not going to like either of them:
Yeah, sorry. Like we said, not great. But there is one other solution: demand that Google stop protecting Russia. These are two things that Google needs to do starting now:
This needs to happen now. Advertisers are the customer here, and they have a right to protect their brands from funding a war. And if Google disagrees, it’s worth asking: whose side are they really on?
Thanks for reading,
Nandini and Claire
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