Real-time auctions are bad for privacy and good for misinformation

The PIA blog spends a lot of time discussing advertising, which might seem odd. But the sad reality is that today’s online advertising model represents the most serious ongoing assault on your privacy online. At the heart of this attack on your privacy is real-time bidding (RTB), so it’s worth revisiting how it works, as its undeniably impressive use of digital technology is the root of all its serious problems. .

A few hundredths of a second after clicking on a link on a typical site, the blank ad spaces are set up for automated bidding among potential advertisers. In addition to site information and advertising space, tons of your personal information is also sent over the Internet.

The scale of this breach of privacy by data brokers is extraordinary. Research by leading campaigner in this area, Johnny Ryan, who works at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), shows that in 2020 over a trillion RTB broadcasts of personal information took place.

Real-time bidding leads to losses for webmasters

The damage done to your basic human rights by this cavalier and uncontrolled sharing of information on a global scale is obvious. But it turns out it’s also bad for companies that use it for advertising. Another report by Ryan, published in 2021, found that online user tracking by Google (and Facebook) diverts huge sums from those running the websites where RTB ads appear. In 2004, just over half of Google’s advertising revenue came from advertisements on publisher sites. In 2021, this figure was 85%.

First page of the Google Ads Security Report.
How about misinformation for a safe user experience?

The change took place because the RTB approach hides the details of where the money is going. Instead of transparent negotiations between human actors, everything is conducted by opaque algorithms that prevent publishers and advertisers from knowing what is happening and thus from asserting their own interests. Moreover, this situation makes it conducive to fraud. A 2020 report wrote:

This year [2020], digital ad fraud losses ($35 billion) quickly exceeded global annual credit card fraud ($27 billion). Despite the relatively insignificant annual spending of the digital advertising industry ($333 billion) compared to the credit card industry of $3.32 trillion. The fraud rate in digital advertising is more than six times that of the insurance industry, 1.8 times that of healthcare, and 13 times that of the credit card industry.

This is again a factor of complexity and opacity which acts as a breeding ground for fraud, and digital advertising in particular.

Real-time bidding redirects readers to low-quality content

Ryan’s 2021 report notes that RTB allows tech companies to use the detailed and highly personal information they collect to sell audiences to advertisers on cheaper, lower-quality sites, depriving mainstream publishers of revenue. . New research shows that the harms of diverting ad revenue to low-quality sites go much deeper:

Google funnels its revenue to some of the web’s most prolific fake news providers in Europe, Latin America and Africa, a ProPublica investigation has found.

The company has publicly pledged to fight misinformation around the world, but a ProPublica analysis, the first ever on this scale, has documented how Google’s sprawling automated digital advertising operation placed ads from big brands on global websites that spread false claims on topics such as vaccines. , COVID-19, climate change and elections.

Google is certainly aware of the problem. In its 2021 Ad Safety Report, it said it removed more than 3.4 billion ads, restricted more than 5.7 billion ads, and suspended 5.6 million advertiser accounts. In addition, it blocked or restricted ad serving on 1.7 billion publisher pages and took “broader site-level enforcement actions” on approximately 63,000 publisher sites. Given these impressive numbers, it’s interesting to wonder why ProPublica found so many ads placed by Google on sites full of misinformation.

A former Google executive working on trust and security issues within the company explained that the focus was on enforcement in English-speaking markets, with other languages ​​being of secondary importance. The Xoogler mentioned three factors at play: avoiding bad public relations; avoid regulatory scrutiny; and income protection. All of these factors have caused Google to care more about the English-speaking market than others.

Does Google care about non-English misinformation?

The ProPublica report cites a 2019 estimate from the Global Disinformation Index, which scans websites for false and misleading material, that disinformation sites earned around $250 million a year. He estimates that Google was responsible for 40% of that amount, with the rest coming from other ad tech companies serving ads in the same way.

Another organization working in this area, Newsguard, estimated that advertising revenue generated by disinformation sites was much higher, at $2.6 billion. In any case, many of these sites operate on a shoestring, so even small ad revenue can be important to keeping them afloat financially.

The bulk of the ProPublica report examines specific examples of ads placed by Google on disinformation sites, including in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and across Francophone Africa. However, there is no reason to believe that other nations are immune to the problem. This is a serious global problem, driven by Google’s cynical use of an opaque system to boost its profits in parts of the world that are subject to less scrutiny than Western markets. This is made possible by the deeply flawed and privacy-hostile RTB approach, which is indifferent to the damage it causes through its support of misinformation.

Real-time auction funding misinformation is another reason we need to move to an advertising system based on context, not personal data, as soon as possible. In addition to protecting privacy, it would also deprive disinformation sites of much of their funding, as big brands would realize their disreputable nature and systematically avoid them.

Featured image from Wikimedia.

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