AppNexus pulls the plug on Breitbart News

Who: AppNexus Inc. and Breitbart News

Where: USA

When: 22 November 2016

Law stated as at: 21 December 2016

What happened:

AppNexus took the decision to pull Breitbart News inventory from its ad exchange service on the basis that content on the right-wing news site breaches company policies on hate speech.

The decision to ban Breitbart from selling ads through AppNexus was apparently taken following a ‘human audit’, which identified sufficient articles and headlines that “cross that line, using either coded or overt language“. The timing of this move came immediately after the appointment by President-elect Trump of Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s former CEO, as his chief strategist.

AppNexus is one of the largest ad-tech companies providing publishers with access to programmatic ad buying tools. Backed by the likes of Microsoft, News Corp. and WPP, it provides an important source of revenue for online publications.

Breitbart News has come under scrutiny through its central role in the rise of the “alt-right” movement in the USA. The site proved an important source of support for the Trump campaign, but has been heavily criticised for content many view as racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

Following the AppNexus ban, it’s been reported that a number of major brands have pulled online advertising from the news site in protest over its message, including Kelloggs, Allstate, Nest, EarthLink, Warby Parker and SoFi. Other online ad exchanges, however, haven’t yet followed suit. Google’s DoubleClick, for example, still serves ads on Breitbart, despite its rules barring ads from running next to “harassing or bullying content” and “content that incites or advocates for harm against an individual or group.”

Why this matters:

Ad exchanges such as AppNexus play a central important role in shaping internet users’ experiences and reading habits by deciding which inventory may be put up for sale from online publishers. News sites like Breitbart often rely very heavily, if not entirely, on revenue from such ad sales.

Ad tech companies have traditionally adopted a relatively neutral stance with regards to political content and message. If advertising tools, such as those from AppNexus, prohibit ad support for a site in reference to the type of content it features, the worry of many is that this could directly lead to a prominence of only those views that advertisers deem acceptable.

However, it is likely that AppNexus’ move is equally about protecting “brand safety”, i.e. maintaining acceptable ‘on-brand’ standards for the marketers whose ads run next to Breitbart headlines. This is reflected in Kellogs analysis of their move away from Breitbart: “We regularly work with our media buying partners to ensure that ads do not appear on sites that are not aligned with our values as a company.”

Helpfully, a month after the decision to ban Breitbart, Brian O’Kelley (CEO of AppNexus) wrote an article for the Independent offering an explanation for the controversial move. O’Kelley emphatically ties the decision back to hate speech, but also indicates that there are overarching ethical factors at play.

This move by AppNexus shows that advertisers should, where possible, collaborate with ad exchanges and other service providers to make clear their brand values, how they would like ads presented and in what type of context. Website owners, on the other hand, should be alert to the risk of advertisers and ad exchanges voting with their feet if they view a site’s content as “crossing the line”.

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