Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: YouTube’s Problematic Advertising

Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: YouTube’s Problematic Advertising

Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Farhad: Hey Mike, how are you? What a week of news it was. There was lots of serious, deep stuff—terrorism, counterintelligence, a farewell for a genius — but there were some pretty fun moments, too.

At one point, for instance, President Trump got into a big rig and honked its horn a couple of times, really putting all of his effort into it. It looked quite satisfying, to tell the truth. Next time I have a hard day at the office, I’m going to go look for a big truck.

Mike: Remember when you were a little kid in the back seat of your parents’ car, and every time you passed a truck on the highway you did the “pull-the-chain horn honking” hand signal at the driver? This was like that, but with a guy who has control of our nuclear arsenal. Frankly, I feel good about it.

Farhad: Thank you for that reminder. O.K., let’s talk tech.

Let’s start with Washington. The Senate passed a bill this week to overturn Obama-era broadband privacy rules.

Under rules created last October by the Federal Communications Commission, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other broadband providers had to ask your permission to track your online behavior to sell for advertising purposes. On a party-line vote, Republicans in the Senate decided that was too onerous. If the measure passes the House and gets President Trump’s signature, broadband companies will be free to track you without your permission.

Mike: Um, this sounds … bad?

Farhad: Why is it a good idea to let broadband oligopolies automatically track people’s browsing behavior? I don’t think consumers want this, and I haven’t heard a single rational reason for removing the rules other than the cult of deregulation. Also, I feel bad for the N.S.A. analyst who has to pore over your web history.

Mike: My guess is that a senator defending this would parrot a talking point from one of the companies advocating for this overturning. So something like, “Look, if we let them track you that means you’ll receive more relevant advertising rather than bad ads. That’s a good thing, right?” That’s usually the message these companies give when you go into your settings and turn on the “do not track” feature.

This whole thing is clearly in no way justifiable in the name of consumer protection. The reason there isn’t more outrage about this, in my opinion, is that it’s far too technical of an issue for normal people to get up in arms about unless translated into plain English and publicized.

Farhad: Speaking of policy directives with no clear purpose, the United States and Britain issued a surprise ban this week on electronics in the air. Under the new rule, passengers on U.S.-bound flights from many Middle Eastern cities are not allowed to carry any devices larger than a cellphone on board. Large electronics — tablets, laptops, e-readers, basically everything you need to keep your sanity on a long flight — must now be checked.

The American government says these rules are meant to counter a security threat and have nothing to do with President Trump’s immigration policies. But given the White House’s track record on banning stuff from other countries, lots of people were skeptical about the aims for this policy. If the government was simply trying to punish Middle Eastern airlines, making their long-haul flights far less comfortable would be a good way to go about it.

Mike: What’s next?

Farhad: Well, several companies, including AT&T and Johnson & Johnson, announced that they’d be pulling down their ads from YouTube because of fears that their brands were appearing next to ISIS videos and other hate speech. It’s not clear that this will amount to a big financial problem for YouTube and Google, its parent company, but these companies’ fears do highlight a larger problem with the online ad business.

More and more ads are being sold “programmatically” — that is, through financial algorithms run by computers rather than by human marketers determining the exact placement of any given spot. But it’s not clear that the big programmatic companies, of which Google is the largest and most powerful, have perfected ways to keep prominent brands off some of the seedier corners of the internet.

Mike: I imagine Taco Bell probably doesn’t want its brand new chalupas brought to viewers alongside alt-right Pepe frogs.

Farhad: I suspect this is a short-term problem. Google is good at search and mining content for meaning; it should be able to come up with a way, soon, to identify the worst parts of its network, and keep its biggest brands far away from that content. So as long as Google acts fast, I see this is a temporary blip. What do you think?

Mike: I have a different take on this. Here’s the thing: This has been a problem ever since programmatic advertising existed in the first place. YouTube is great at taking down copyrighted content; it pioneered a system called “ContentID,” and it’s been a huge savior in dealing with copyright concerns from content owners.

But how do you deal with ads that appear on videos that have racist or xenophobic content in them? Doesn’t that get into the realm of sentiment analysis? Isn’t that difficult to handle in the long term? I feel like that requires the aid of artificial intelligence, a field that C.E.O.s have admitted still needs help understanding very human issues.

The other side of this lies with the folks who have to write up the community guidelines around what constitutes racism and hate speech, an area into which companies like Google and Facebook have increasingly been drawn as reluctant arbiters of speech. That’s the last place they want to be headed, but I think they won’t have much of a choice.

My guess on how this plays out: A bunch of brands will yank ads. YouTube will come out with some rewritten policy on community guidelines that’s somewhat more hardline against certain kinds of speech, but still relatively squishy. Brand advertisers will reinsert their ads on YouTube. The heat will go away. Life will steadily march on.

Speaking of that, I’m going to go enjoy life and find a truck horn to honk. See you.


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