The tech giants’ lack of answers shows us just how troublesome online media really can be sometimes

The world of automated online media trading has gotten out of control, much different from the original intentions / pixabay

The democratization of media posed by the online world means that advertisers and politicians alike will have to accept that assurances of the old world order, such as brand safety, are a thing of the past. The inability of the biggest tech companies (or are they media outlets?) to provide such assurances at Congress this week bore testimony to that.

Three of the media industry’s largest online platforms took to Capitol Hill on October 31st to face questions about Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 presidential election in the first of a three-part grilling.

Rich Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security; Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel; and Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett, faced questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

All three issued their own individual testimonies ahead of the proceedings and, predictably, offered assurances that they were on the same page as those issuing the questions — and did give some insights into their respective plans on their individual tech solutions geared towards stopping the spread of “extremist content and Russian disinformation online," as well as addressing the extent of the problem.

These include:

  • Google's plan to release an election report, plus it is working on some tech solutions such as a user tool that will let end-users track the origins of all political ads they are served with.
  • Facebook’s limiting would-be advertisers’ ability to employ “potentially sensitive” targeting on the social network as well as “additional layers of review” that would further limit such “threat actor’s” ability to hone in on specific groups.
  • Twitter's redoubling efforts to distinguish between real and automated accounts (it estimates that less than 5% of its user accounts are automated accounts as opposed to those manually controlled by human beings) as well as building an “ad transparency center” that will better help its track advertisers on its platform.
  • All three are improving their efforts to have human input to help validate the legitimacy of such content on their platforms which had formerly been primarily reliant upon algorithms.

However, it was when the questions started coming thick-and-fast that tempers began to fray with all three facing the ire of elected officials at separate points of the two-hour hearing.

(L-R) Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel; Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett, Rich Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security

Senators were quick to point out that despite the three companies bearing testimony often boasting of their tech prowess, and having some of the largest data sets in human history at their disposal, all three were unable to spot foreign interference. And even worse, they actually profited from foreign interests attempts to mislead the US electorate.

In particular, it was Facebook’s inability to use two data points of Russian currency being used to pay for a political ad targeting the US electorate that was a point of contention between committee members and the social network.

Similarly, the time-lag between such issues being raised with the companies, and their inability to make systematic policy decisions to counter them, were also bemoaned by committee members.

'Just not enough'

However, one part of proceedings that stuck out in my own mind was how all three registered their theoretical support of the recently announced Honest Ads Act, yet they stopped short of pledging full support of its passage their Congress.

The architect of this Bill, Senator Amy Klobuchar a Democrat from Minnesota, was on hand to pass commentary that if all three enacted a similar policy, it would be easier for public policymakers to review and give their seal of approval.

She argued that while their cooperation was appreciated, it was “just not enough”, and when she asked the three if they would support her proposed legislation, the best any could do was to pledge support for its aims (hardly a ringing endorsement).

So while all parties publicly appear to be on the same side in terms of their philosophies, when questions about the technological possibility of tracking companies, payments and exactly who is signing the checks is when the three were bereft of answers.

Penetrating the shell company structure

This is something advertisers – who keep being assured the online advertising supply chain will clean up its act – should sit up and take notice of. Simply put, the vast and fragmented adtech ecosystem that transcends borders and jurisdictions means they cannot realistically expect the assurances of the old world.

Speaking about his company’s efforts in the advertising transparency space, Twitter’s Edgett, added: “We’re talking a lot about how do you get to know your client… With the ads transparency center, we’re building that kind of center that allows the American citizen to be educated about who is running an ad, who is paying for the ad, and what they’re targeting.

“We’ll have to figure out a good process of figuring out who those companies are, that are signing the checks to advertise with Twitter.”

Tellingly, one Senate committee member raised that, despite any such policy changes from the internet’s biggest players, such nefarious interests can always hide the original source of such funds behind shell companies, with all three acknowledging the menace of this issue.

Similarly, under interrogation from Senators, Facebook’s legal chief Stretch was also unable to testify whether or not the social network benefited financially from anti-semitic ads targeted towards users based on their self-reported user profiles.

'You're good, but not that good'

Committee member, Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, summed it up: “I find your power breathtaking, and I don’t believe you have the ability to determine the identity of all your advertisers, you're good, but you’re not that good.

All three will face further scrutiny tomorrow, but the lack of answers from some of the world’s largest companies under questions from the most powerful elected government on the planet is something that should register with advertisers (as well as media media owners) looking for the much talked about ‘adtech cleanup.’

The IAB’s recent “Gold Standard” initiative in the UK was unveiled recently, but the three pledges (in particular those over ad fraud reduction) look unlikely to have any large material impact until law enforcement is likely to get involved.

In the US too, the flaws in its drive to help edge criminals to the outer edges of the online media business have been shown since the introduction of the ads.txt initiative, with several sources pointing out how some of the biggest names in the business have been caught red handed to inadvertently aid fraudulent players.

To use a seasonal reference, the vastness of the online world become like Frankenstein’s Monster; an ungainly power that has superseded the expectations of its early architects. And even with data sets profiling billions of people, not event the largest corporations on the planet can keep on top of everything.

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Ronan Shields

I'm the digital editor at The Drum, and cover adtech and martech. Prefer news and analysis, over opinion pieces. Current fascination(s) are blockchain and media futures trading; also curious about transhumanism on a personal basis. NYC-based, but really London Irish.

All by Ronan