Conscious Advertising Network – written evidence (DAD0091)

Response by Jake Dubbins and Harriet Kingaby, co-chairs, The Conscious Advertising Network, a voluntary coalition of over 70 organisations on a mission to help the ethics catch up with the technology of modern advertising.

Version 1, submitted 07 February 2020.

1.1 Synopsis


2. Funding of content on the internet

2.1 Advertising funds the internet, something advertisers are not yet taking seriously

The internet is a shared resource mostly funded by advertising; a responsibility we would like to see advertisers lean into. At the moment, this dynamic is twisting the development of the online commons to prioritise commercial interest. The result? Journalism that reads more like clickbait, and fake news sites which spread misinformation. Unethical organisations engineer ad fraud through false clicks and bots, which supplements organised crime to the tune of billions. It is no longer good enough for brands to suggest that they have no responsibility for the conditions in their physical supply chains, why should the same be true in their online ones?

The term ‘win win’ is a poor one to use. Neither the advertiser nor the customer is winning in the current situation. Customers have little control over what they consent to with respect to their data. Advertisers often have little idea where their advertising is going. Plus, the current system has cut revenue to quality publishers, making the New York Times compete with cat videos for revenue. In what is known as the ‘adtech tax’, advertising middlemen capture from 55% (industry data) to 70% (as demonstrated by The Guardian) of every dollar spent on an ad. Surely this isn’t right.


2.2 Advertising is funding hate speech, misinformation, organised crime, and threatening the welfare of our children

The advertising industry has a unique place in our lives, funding much of the visual and auditory content that shapes what we understand about our lives and critical issues, such as climate change and sustainability.

Advertisements are appearing next to White supremacist content, climate denial, and paedophile content, funding it. Hatred online is an economic model. In CAN’s recent presentation at the United Nations’ Forum for Business and Human Rights in Geneva we demonstrated how many groups are making money from online hate by producing content they can monetise through the platforms.

We believe there needs to be more discussion of how brands and the advertising industry are taking measures to mitigate the funding of this content.

Tommy Robinson’s website, funded by brands such as LG, The Times and Islamic Relief, before advertising was removed as a result of a tip off from CAN

Climate denial on German language Russia Today, see title ‘CO2 is harmlos’, funded by Iglo, Adobe, Deloitte.

Inappropriate and paedophilic content, accessed via YouTube and funded by advertising.


3. COP26

3.1 We are concerned that COP26 will be hijacked by misinformation, funded by advertising

We have seen up close how organised, global misinformation campaigns can disrupt and even break apart global, multilateral United Nations agreements. Here is a talk we gave at a General Assembly conference in Marrakesh at the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration. The speech is 40.25 - 48.00.

The misinformation campaign to discredit the agreement was co-ordinated and international, and resulted in the US, Australia, Poland, Chile and others pulling out while the Belgian Government collapsed. YouTube was a particular issue, pushing misinformation as some of the top search results, which were also funded by advertising. A recent report by Avaaz showed how climate misinformation is being recommended as top results via YouTube’s recommendation engine, and travels swiftly around YouTube in a similar fashion. However, advertisers and YouTube have been slow to respond, downplaying the issue, and we are seriously concerned that COP26 could be subject to a similar campaign, with misinformation funded by advertising.

We would like to know more about how the ASA, platforms and advertisers are preparing for such an eventuality, and recommend the Lords urge advertisers and platforms to take this threat seriously and urgently. YouTube, at the very least, needs to make sure that climate misinformation is included in its misinformation guidelines, and that advertisers have the option to opt out of funding denialist content. We need leadership on what responsible advertising which tackles climate change and delivers against SDGs looks like and this must be adopted by advertisers, and the platforms.


Headlines from the UN Global Compact on Migration. Misinformation featured in the Daily Express, funded by major advertisers. And the Stop Funding Hate debunk.


3.2 The ASA has a limited remit, based on times when mass advertising was the norm

It appears that the ASA has no way of tracking ads which are targeted at individuals unless they do the kind of tracking mentioned in the evidence. This is an age of behavioural targeting.

Waiting for the public to report things, and doing some tracking on key issues is not enough for programmatically targeted ads to distinct segments. It means that if, for example, an entity wanted to spread an IDEA to a distinct group of people (particularly if those people have little agency or have low digital literacy), as opposed to marketing a PRODUCT to them, the ASA would have no idea, as those people would be unlikely to complain or to know they were being manipulated. We have seen this with the spread of anti-vax, flat earth and white supremacist ideas, which were spread via YouTube and funded by advertising. Even their example of homeopathy is interesting, but still revolves around products. Ideas are being distorted using methods designed to market products, messages are being tested, honed and weaponised using analytical feedback. And no one knows what ads are being placed or how they’re being targeted.

We are also concerned by the use of the terminology ‘partnerships’ when referring to big tech companies. We believe the ASA should be there to enforce the rules.


3.3 What is the ASA’s stance on hate speech and climate misinformation?

We’d like to know the ASA’s position on hate speech/free speech and also climate misinformation, as this is not specifically covered in the various non-binding, advisory green claims guidance documents. How to they define it? What do they do about it? How are they preparing for COP26?

Let’s be very clear that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is happening. Political opinion should be separated from fact. We need to be extremely careful that the loophole around political/non-political ads is not exploited to avoid regulation.




3.4 Political versus commercial advertising

Lies in political advertising are manipulating people, creating further mistrust and eroding our democracy. Rebuilding trust is a key priority of the Advertising Association, ISBA and WFA. To suggest otherwise is blatantly wrong.


3.5 Platforms are not equipped to deal with these problems

Platforms are not doing a good enough job of regulating what appears on their sites, and there is evidence to suggest that they fail to regulate content on their platforms in the following ways:

It may be easy to report content, but the way that content is then dealt with is ineffective. How are the ASA responding to this?


4. Beyond brand safety to human safety

4.1 Block lists and crude attempts to ensure ‘brand safety’ are demonetising minority voices

The current system could also be making it harder for marginalised communities to have their voices heard. Crude ‘block-lists’ (lists of key words used to ensure ads don’t appear next to unsuitable content) are demonetising content from some communities altogether, causing minority publications to close, or seek alternative funding models. Outvertising’s Jerry Daykin and Christopher Kenna point out that 73% of safe LGBTQ+ content is rendered unmonetisable under current blocklists, while a recent Vice investigation showed that keyword exclusion lists include generic terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘Muslim’ more often than terms such as ‘murder’.

AI is still trying to decide whether things are ‘object A or object B’. It’s not a silver bullet, but it could be used more effectively. For example, we use AI in Pulsar social listening tools to identify sentiment. Why can’t the same kind of technologies by deployed to ensure the web is monetised fairly?


4.2 Ad fraud is a serious issue, funding organised crime

We believe that too little focus is put on the real world implications of ad fraud. What does it fund? The predictions on the amount of money lost to ad fraud in 2019 vary from USD$5.8bn (£4.4bn) (White Ops and the ANA) and USD$23bn (£17.6bn) (Cheq). These are big numbers and is funding things like organised crime, in fact, it is the second biggest funder behind the drugs trade (WFA). Campaigners such as Dr. Augustine Fou and Nandini Jammi suspect that the advertising industry is covering up levels of fraud to imply that the problem is going away.

The Sleeping Giants Amendment of the Loi Avia in France decrees that all advertisers should declare the placement of their advertising in the public interest. This could be an interesting way of defunding fraud and hate speech and urging advertisers to take more responsibility for their digital supply chains.


4.3 The way the respondents talk about personal data and consent feels shocking to us

Advertisers argue that the personal data used to build up targeting profiles of people is anonymised. However, when cross referenced with data such as IP address and location, organisations such as Privacy International have argued that this data is, at best, pseudonymised.

People are unaware of how their data is being used and just how many people it is being shared with. There’s a conversation not happening with the public about what their data is being used for. If that data is bought, illegally, by a broker, or sold onto an organisation with political intent, then we also have a huge problem of that data being used to manipulate people.

The Norwegian Consumer Council recently found that apps such as Grindr were leaching personal data in contravention of GDPR. The data sent from Grindr to exchange, Mopub, was found to be labelled with its source, essentially revealing the sexuality of the user to those processing it. Civil society is rightly concerned at the amount of data leakage associated with real time bidding, and the potential for the data to manipulate, or end up in the wrong hands, and to hear it talked about in the casual way we saw in the submitted evidence was concerning. Johnny Ryan of Brave, Panoptykon, Privacy International and Mozilla have discussed concerns at length on the topic.

There are a lot of companies and individuals with a lot of money who want the status quo to continue with respect to energy, travel, and shipping. Should we really let commercial enterprises with all these resources have access to data and target people around crucial world changes? We’re effectively pitting young people and indigenous communities against corporates with money. Data is not available to everyone. It’s available to those who have the money and resources to find it. And that is scary.


4.4 The ICO have found that the level of data harvesting and processing involved in real time bidding is illegal and are calling on brands to act.

The ICO have found that ‘some of adtech is inappropriate, some of it is illegal’ and are targeting brand owners who use illegal adtech, as opposed to the adtech providers themselves. The ICO have found that some of that the data collection and processing undertaken under real time bidding is unlawful under GDPR. Simon McDougall, executive director for technology and innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office, was quoted at the AA LEAD conference as saying: “In the end, it’s the brands that are funding all of this. If a regulator keeps on saying something is unethical, and it’s illegal, it’s problematic, at what point does it become an ethical issue for the brands to keep bankrolling those instances?”

Behavioural ads are also hurting publisher revenue. New academic research also goes against industry data and shows that personalised ads translate to only 4% more revenue for publishers, as opposed to contextual ads. A recent poll by Digiday of publishing executives found that 45 percent of them saw no significant benefit from behavioural ads, and 23 percent said they actually caused a decline in revenue.


4.5 Consumer ‘consent’ is not informed

The pop-ups which we must now act on when we visit new websites are designed to ‘nudge’ people to click ‘yes, I agree’, as opposed to the ‘no’ option through design. Further, consent fatigue causes people to close the banner just to get rid of it as fast as possible. In many cases clicking ‘X’ is also interpreted as consent. The law states that valid consent should be informed, but many companies don’t clearly explain how ad targeting works. Given how complicated and opaque it is, is it actually possible for users to understand and accept the consequences of giving consent?

Because the extent of tracking and complexity of the adtech industry is incomprehensible to consumers, they cannot make informed choices and give their meaningful consent. These profiles are anonymised, but difficult for consumers to access, edit, or withdraw from.


5. The Conscious Advertising Network

5.1 Solutions are available, and volunteers should not be policing the internet

All major advertisers signing up to The Conscious Advertising Network and embedding our principles in all RFPs would go some way to solving the problems described below. It is aimed at marketing decision makers, and something we would highly recommend. It is also worth noting that the Network is voluntary, free to join, and something we are not gaining from monetarily.

Brands continue to monetise harmful content. See below for examples of advertising on homophobic, antisemitic Gazeta Polska. And AI is barely able to recognise objects, never mind nuance. It is not the silver bullet we need.

Volunteers such as CAN, Sleeping Giants, Stop Funding Hate, as well as civil society groups are policing the internet, while advertisers make vast sums of money. This should not be the case. It’s time for brands and the advertising industry to lean into their responsibilities, clean up their digital supply chains, and defund the fraud, hate speech and misinformation which threatens our democracy and climate.

Household brands such as Addison Lee, Audi, Ikea and Buckingham Palace found on anti-Semitic and homophobic Gazeta Polska. A large software company removed their adverts and conducted an internal review based on tip offs from CAN.

6. Questions