An Open Letter to Online Ad Networks

by Jonah Stein and Jonathan Hochman

The FTC recently announced guidelines for bloggers that requires that they disclose financial interests, freebies and paid reviews.  This decision is seen as a shot across the bow of pay per post networks and bloggers who are monetizing through affiliate programs.    The FTC has decided that compensation is the reason bloggers choose to write about a particular topic and that readers deserve to be informed about the financial relationship.    The FTC logic is simple, “As much as those bloggers who receive these gifts would like to claim this isn’t the case, freebies like free laptops, trips, or gift cards are likely to influence a writer’s opinion of a product.”  

On its face, the policy is defensible.   As crusaders against Virtual Blight, we applaud the intent of this decision.  Anything that raises the barrier to online scams, fraud and abuse even a little bit is a good thing. The FTC provides guidelines for responsible bloggers and theoretically eliminates a couple of the perks for bloggers, but it does virtually nothing to protect against fraud. 

Going after bloggers’ compensation to fight online fraud is reminiscent of the RIAA attacks on individual file sharers and is just as likely to succeed. The absurdity of the power and inertia of a government bureaucracy combating individual bloggers is only matched by the ludicrous assumption the government could ever move fast enough to keep up with professional scammers who jump from domain to domain, host to host and country to country with a few mouse clicks.  Prosecution could only be effective against mainstream bloggers with an established brand that are stationary targets, but these bloggers are not the right target.

Getting a proverbial free lunch in exchange for a presumably positive review may create the appearance that some bloggers are shills who lend their prestige and celebrity to their sponsors.  That perception is not unreasonable, but the same charge could be made against almost every athlete, actor, musician or American Idol runner-up who profits from our celebrity culture. 

Giving items to celebrities or other tastemakers in return for public exposure is a practice older than the printing press.   If the FTC really wants to send a message about compensated endorsements and freebies, the answer is not to go after the mommy bloggers who get a free 42-pack of diapers.  If the FTC were serious, they would begin arresting every actress wearing a designer gown to the Academy Awards and then round up the studio and network executives who rake in cash for product placements in movies and television shows.

Focus On Fraud

The statistics for online fraud are both staggering and predictable.  Instead of being distracted by the sizzling, sensational charges of payola that re-appear every generation, the industry needs to focus on the billions of dollars of online fraud committed each year.  According to the Center for American Progress, Internet-related consumer complaints are among the top ten in consumer complaints in 2008 and the number one complaint in four states.  These complaints run from auction fraud and non-delivery of ecommerce items to reverse billing scams.

By any definition, the perpetrators of online fraud are not bloggers.  If a review constitutes fraud because the reviewer was provided a free product or had some undisclosed relationship with the company who produced the product, then every journalist with a 401k full of mutual funds needs to hire a good lawyer.  Indeed, if bloggers are guilty of anything it is tabloid journalism — writing low quality content with sensational headlines designed to attract visitors to their site in order to collect advertising revenue.  This may not live up to the highest journalistic standards, but the only crimes are against facts and the English language.

Criminals are the people and companies who create pyramid schemes, networks of spam blogs to sell diet products like Hoodia and Acai Berry cleanse, Google money trees and the myriad so called “free” offers that create recurring charges on your cell phone or credit card.

Criminals are the people who target kids’ sites to distribute Trojans, spyware and adware that infects our computers and tricks people into buying phony anti-virus products.  Most of us have either experienced malware nightmares ourselves or heard a friend’s sad story.  When online fraud is so prevalent, predatory and destructive, why are government resources being committed to pursue advertorial content?

Ad Networks Are the Key

Thebiggest thing these criminals have in common is that they perpetrate their scams by buying advertising through ad networks.  These networks have achieved the scale that makes it efficient for legitimate advertisers to reach millions of consumers and that makes them an ideal vector for scams, abuse and deception. 

In an unregulated auction-based advertising market place, fraudulent offers can often pay the highest bids for keywords. In FTC Going After Bloggers – Epic Fail, Aaron observes that ad networks that syndicate ads based on “maximizing yield efficiency“ are well suited to syndicate fraud. Advertisers of scams can afford to pay top dollar for ads because their profit margins are nearly 100%.

Ad networks are morally responsible as collaborators in interstate and international frauds perpetrated upon hundreds of thousands of victims each year.  Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and many others are far more culpable in consumers being defrauded than any blogger or network of bloggers.

In False and Deceptive Pay-Per-Click Ads, Harvard’s Ben Edelman estimated that as much as 70% of the revenue generated by some online scams actually wind up in the hands of the search engines.   He estimated in 2006 that Google and Yahoo were making over $200,000 a month from advertisements for screensaver software which contained spyware.  As of July 15, 2009, the top paid search results on Google for “screensaver” contain “add-on features” which include spyware, change your default browser settings, ad toolbars and otherwise aim to monetize by deceiving users.  Adding insult to injury, Edelman observes that many of these adware tools monetize by sending traffic through AdSense and DoubleClick, making Google a silent partner for adware companies like WhenU and Smiley Central.

Fight the Problems that Be

Scams and fraud not only harm the consumer, they foster the perception that the internet is not a safe place, hindering the growth of online business and delaying the transfer of marketing dollars from old media.  Instead of waiting for government agencies to step in and create regulations aimed at yesterday’s scams, as an industry we need to become proactive and develop a cooperative framework for mutual self-defense, a neighborhood watch designed to keep consumers safer while helping law enforcement focus resources on the most serious trouble makers.

The war on online fraud is going to be a huge struggle and one we are unlikely to ever declare victory.  The issues are complex, but the industry could significantly reduce the problem by creating a transparent mechanism to collect user feedback about advertisers.  Search engines and ad networks are quick to endorse behavioral targeting and social recommendations to boost earning per exposure.   For some mysterious reason, they have not applied these innovations to getting user feedback about advertisers.  

If the Internet is the cesspool that Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google says it is, one way to start cleaning it up would be to create a public reputation system for advertisers.  This would simultaneously reward honest companies while helping consumers protect themselves against the bad guys.   eBay created public reputations for buyers and sellers many years ago.  Why are advertisers free to operate without scrutiny? 

It seems straightforward to build an advertiser rating system to share relevant statistics and user feedback.  Why not provide the tenure of the advertiser, normalized click volume, the percentage of users giving feedback and a ratio of clicks to complaints along with a link to detailed reviews that could surface fraud, misleading advertising and scams?  If comparison shopping engines can do it, why can’t ad networks?

We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we see the problem and its sources. Government agencies need to ask the ad networks why they accept money for promoting fraud.  Ad networks need to grow up and behave like responsible businesses. 

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