The ad economy of disinformation: does an alternative model exist?

This article is the summary of a webinar hosted by DisinfoLab on 27/02 with Johnny Ryan, Chief Policy and Industry Relations officer at Brave.

Advertising placement can be a source of revenue for websites purveyors of disinformation. In this regard, signatories of the EU Code of Practice on disinformation committed in september 2018  to “significantly   improve the scrutiny of advertisement placements, notably in order to reduce revenues of  the purveyors of Disinformation”. The code has been signed by several advertising trade associations.

Reaching that goal does not seem so simple. The online advertising industry is partly built on a real-time bidding process that allows little scrutiny on the placement of ads. What’s more, this process heavily relies on data collected by third parties that can be misused due to the large number of actors involved in the value chain. Then, what is the role played by advertisement in the misinformation economy? Does an alternative business model exist?

This and other issues were discussed during the webinar organised by DisinfoLab. Johnny Ryan, Chief Policy and Industry relations officer at Brave, presented the detail of the real time bidding advertising system. The system relies on data provided by Data Service Providers (DSP) to request bids through the ad exchange platform, that will ultimately release a targeted ad on the website related to the visitor’s profile.

One of the least favorable parts of data service providers such as the French company Vectaury, is that they have been caught by data protection authorities for illegal real time bidding records. Such companies collect billions of data through real time bidding auctions, which can be used illegally due to leakages. Data collected through real time bidding relate to personal information (categories of the content you are watching, location, device information, tracking IDs…).

Such data leakages can support untrustworthy websites, possibly providers of disinformation based on previous bidding history, redirecting advertisers to cheaper, low quality websites.  Thus, worthy sites lose their unique audience and feed a business model for the bottom of the web. What’s more, the use of bots masquerading human visits to regular websites enables fraudsters to steal from publishers and advertisers.

The data handling problem in real time bidding is even more worrying than the fact that part of real time bidding of the overall ad industry keeps increasing. Together with digital right organisation Panopticon, Brave filed several complaints to data protection authorities in Poland, Ireland and the UK.

How to cope with this situation? The fix would be to allow only non-personal data in bid request, such as approximate location and general description of your device. That is why alternative browsers, like Brave, are disabling tracking by default, thus impeaching real time bidding targeting. Brave is currently testing a model where users are retributed for allowing to be targeted by a certain number of ads. With the virtual money their earned, users are encouraged to pay actual publishers.

If the industry at large seems receptive to this issue: the digital branch of advertising needs to change its mindset of single customer view. As advertising is part of the chain financing disinformation websites, advertisers should as well be implicated into this issue.

Dr Johnny Ryan is Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave. His previous roles include Head of Ecosystem at PageFair, and Chief Innovation Officer of The Irish Times. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society