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‘This is not an easy technological fix’: Can the Honest Ads Act succeed?


By Ronan Shields, Digital Editor

October 24, 2017 | 8 min read

IAB chief Randall Rothenberg is poised to give testimony in US Congress later today on the proposed “Honest Ads Act”, which seeks to introduce greater scrutiny to just who buys political ads on online media, after evidence would suggest foreign interests did so to unduly influence the recent US general election.

Proposed last week by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar, MN, and Mark Warner, VA, and co-sponsored by political heavyweights such as Senator John McCain, AZ, architects of the Honest Ads Act maintain that US law governing transparency in political campaigning have not kept pace with the rapid advances in technology.

What’s being proposed?

The proposals (mirrored by similar proposals in The House of Representatives) seeks to compel online platforms to disclose paid-for political ads, just as broadcast, radio and print media have historically had to.

Addressing members of the press at the debut of the proposals, Klobuchar, said: “$1.4bn was spent on online ads during the 2016 election, and while TV ads and radio ads had to be filed and registered so citizens or journalists could look at them, that is not true for online advertisements.

“Only two companies – Google and Facebook – accounted for 99% of the revenue growth for digital advertising in 2016, and online platforms are now dwarfing broadcast, satellite and cable providers.

“We need regulatory rules and a framework that shields our elections from foreign money and harmonizes the rules.”

The Honest Ad Act proposes that online platforms with traffic in excess of 50m unique monthly users to monitor advertisers purchasing inventory worth over $500, with every sector of the industry pledging their support to help authorities achieve their aims.

Speaking during the unveiling of ‘Honest Ads’, Senator Warner said Facebook had initially been “dismissive” of such concerns in the wake of the US Presidential election last year, but noted that the social network had since backtracked from this early stance that it is not a media company – it has since pledge to employ a swathe of fact-checkers.

Since then, it has admitted that it received over $100k in payments for “inauthentic” political ads from Russia before sharing the findings of its investigations with US authorities, and is poised to send its general counsel Colin Stretch to testify at a public hearing in November. Representatives from Google and Twitter are poised to do likewise.

Ahead of Rothenberg’s appearance in front of the Subcommittee on Information Technology of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the IAB’s EVP of Public Policy released a statement pledging his support for “sensible reform.”

Is this technically possible?

Dan Jaffe, ANA, executive vice president, government relations, points out that while his trade body does not represent political advertisers, its membership were watching the developments with particular interest related to brand safety, an issue that the organization continues to champion.

Expressing his views that while legislation is needed, caution should also be employed so as to not “undermine First Amendment values.”

In particular, he points out that adopting a copy-and-paste approach to how other forms of offline media is not relevant when it comes to online advertising, particularly with the rise of automated media buying technologies.

“With programmatic advertising, where you’re doing a lot of placement buying, millions of placements all the time, it’s much harder to track than some other media. Simple analogies from broadcast & newspapers does not work that easily, so we have to take into account the different characteristics,” he says.

“As far as I’m aware, it goes way beyond what is being required in other media. This is not an easy technological fix. Not to say it can’t be done, but it can’t be done by snapping one’s fingers.”

Will De Lannoy, group strategy director at independent media agency Noble People, further points out how algorithms can lead to complications, especially in an era of ‘walled gardens.’

“As with most regulatory legislation, the big question is ‘who’s watching?’,” he says.

“Because programmatically delivered ads are displayed only when ‘triggered’ by things like bids, targeting parameters, time of day and device, they’re incredibly difficult to observe from the outside. Only the platforms themselves can truly track what’s being delivered. And, if they’re to be believed, it takes them forever to account for what’s happened.”

He goes on to point out how in the issue of verifying, some of the industry’s walled gardens, such as Facebook and Google, are a challenge.

De Lannoy adds: “Third party ad-watching companies like Kantar already struggle to effectively track delivery of advertising on Facebook, Google and Twitter. And they can count hundreds of major companies and brands as clients. So, if the free market can’t solve third-party tracking, will the government be able to?”

Syzygy’s managing director, Megan Harris, echoes this concern, adding that: “Determined political operatives—clearly, the Russians who acted during the 2016 election fit that description—can easily create multiple false identities to fly under the $500 rule. Perhaps the ad world needs to apply some artificial intelligence firepower to this problem.”

Not the time for pointing fingers

Adam Singolda, chief executive of Taboola, points out that similar concerns over transparency prompted his outfit to disclose whom the “mother company” of advertisers on his platform are, along with the appointment of 30 employees to verify the validity of content on the network.

Quizzed on whether or not he thinks a technological fix is possible to help solve the problem (given the potential for such bad actors to hide behind shell outfits, etc) he says that a combination of technological input, along with human investigative work, is necessary. “Humans still have the ability to find new types of hacks, and work things out,” he says. “We [as an industry] need to communicate, agree a way forward, and not point fingers,” he says, advocating that all relevant players publicly disclose their policies on dealing with such malevolent forces to come to a consensus on dealing with them.

Matthew Fanelli, SVP of digital at MNI Targeted Media Inc, a subsidiary of Time Inc, suggests that essentially the case of ‘dishonest ads’ was a case of identity fraud, and argues that while the proposals make sense, there still remains the question of whether or not it can technically work?

“It is up to everyone in the advertising world to ensure it works – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Some may think that this bill negates privacy while others say it eliminates fraud,” he says.

But it’s not just paid-for ads that need attention

The office of IAB chief Rothenberg released a statement ahead of his public testimony reminding readers of the existing efforts of his collective’s 650 members, and pointing out that such bad actors were not just employing paid-for ads advocating specific candidates to achieve their nefarious ends — but also promoted stories or content that may not necessarily be seen as an ad.

In his prepared statement, Rothenberg further echoes the ANA’s Jaffe when pointing out the difficulties in legislating for the role played by the myriad of third-party players involved in the dissemination of questionably motivated content.

“In short, while we support greater transparency in paid political and issue advertising online, we believe that legislation alone will be unable to address the underlying need for greater transparency in the digital advertising industry without falling afoul of two centuries of First Amendment history and court decisions,” he says.

At issue, as well, is the sheer volume of what could be considered and up for debate as political advertising versus political discourse. Rothenberg points out that some of the messaging that bubbled to the surface wasn’t even paid for and that American political speech, in any form, is one of the most protected in the country.

"The FEC has taken a measured approach to this sort of unpaid online activity, because it recognizes the First Amendment rights of Americans to shout on street corners, put signs on their lawns, send letters to the editor, write blogs, post on social media, and email their friends and family without registering as a political committee or reporting how much they spend on postage, plasterboard, megaphones, computers or smart phones,” he adds.

“As much as we might dislike it, propaganda is protected speech – because from Tom Paine to Martin Luther King, we have understood that one American’s propaganda is another American’s principled faith.”

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