The ad exchange has built a niche for itself in the advertising business: “saving online conversations” from hate, lies and disinformation. They’ve gone on the record to say that they would never work with Breitbart. And they’ve made a big show of being big on brand safety.
But since at least April, they’ve been monetizing a different Steve Bannon production: Populist Press. And they appear to be doing it under a fake account designed to throw advertisers off the scent.
The ad industry agrees on one thing and one thing only: Steve Bannon is toxic. So what’s the deal between Bannon and OpenWeb?
We like to periodically check in on OpenWeb. The ad exchange promises to “solve the toxicity crisis”, but we always find them making money off exactly that.
It’s no different this time. On October 19, we found OpenWeb partnering with a handful of toxic outlets — including EU sanctioned Russian state media. Some of these accounts went live in April 2023, well after the invasion of Ukraine began.
So what made OpenWeb pick it up? Why risk it all for a Bannon production?
OpenWeb might be faking its Bannon account
The answer could be that they hoped nobody would find out.
OpenWeb does not declare their partnership with Populist Press to advertisers in its sellers.json directory, a publicly listed file of publishers that each ad exchange maintains for its clients.
Alternatively, it’s possible that they’re working with the outlet through a falsely labeled account. OpenWeb lists a partnership with Augusta Partners in its AdYouLike inventory (acquired by OpenWeb last year):
Let’s translate this for a second. An honest sellers.json entry will tell you the website and the owner of the site.
This OpenWeb sellers.json entry is nonsense. Augusta Partners does not own ProtonMail. And ProtonMail — a paid email service — doesn’t even run ads.
In the ad industry, this is known as “mislabeling.” A mislabeled account allows you to disguise the true identity of the websites you’re working with. It’s a form of advertiser fraud.
OpenWeb may want advertisers to believe they’re running ads for ProtonMail. However, we think this account may actually belong to “August Partners.”
“We acquired two companies, AdYouLike and Jeeng, to diversify monetization channels for our publisher partners. … With these acquisitions, we are working to apply our Global Publisher and Moderation Policies to the acquired entities.”
They also say they will begin enforcement of their brand safety agreements across acquired business units by the end of Q2 in 2024. In other words, clients should expect OpenWeb to continue running their ads on toxic and potentially illegal websites for at least the next six months.
OpenWeb has already owned AdYouLike for over a year. This makes us wonder: Have they only started checking their acquisitions’ inventories because we called them out?
A short history of OpenWeb’s brand safety
We have no reason to be optimistic about OpenWeb’s ability to enforce anything. The company has a long history of getting found out (by us) — and scrambling to maintain their marketing facade:
JULY 2021: We found OpenWeb partnering with numerous sites containing hate, racism and disinformation, including The Post Millennial and Revolver News.
JULY 2021: Around the same time, the Goldberg told Gizmodo that they declined to partner with Breitbart because it doesn’t meet the platform’s content standards
I just learned that OpenWeb is running ads for Steve Bannon-affiliated website Populist Press. This website clearly doesn’t meet your standards. I’m aware that you plan to start reviewing your inventory next year. This means you will be funding Populist Press for at least the next six months.
Is there a reason you can’t review Populist Press and remove it from your inventory now?
Thank you for your time,
Let us know if you hear back — and we’ll do the same.