Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
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Dec. 7, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   December 7, 2020

On some recent business day, The New York Times sold an ad to a company. I can’t tell you the name of the company, or the terms of the deal, but it was for the most high-profile slot the Times offers, a big interactive stripped across the top of its homepage, so the dollar figure was likely meaningful.

On Wednesday, an interested Times reader — in this case, former Timesman Aron Pilhofer — decided to visit the homepage. Advertiser + Publisher + Audience is the age-old equation of ad-supported media; it seemed like all of its elements were coming together.

But then a company worth $1.23 trillion said no.

For those who don’t follow browser policy, that is a screenshot of Google Chrome blocking the ad the Times sold: “This ad used too many resources for your device, so Chrome removed it.”

This isn’t breaking news; Google announced in May that it would start blocking “heavy” ads in Chrome. It launched in late August with Chrome 84.

Let’s be blunt: Nobody likes ads that choke their browser and slow their webpage to a crawl. No one has sympathy for ads that actively harm the user experience. Readers would rather have a functional webpage with a gray box on it than a non-functional one with an ad.

And yet…on principle alone, I still can’t quite get over the idea that Google — the world’s largest advertising company, perennially investigated by regulators for its abuse of its market power, criticized for its negative impacts on the news industry — gets to decide, unilaterally, that an ad The New York Times sold can’t be shown to a New York Times reader.

I don’t know the details of the ad, of course. But the Times has standards for what advertisers can and can’t do, and I doubt the Times, on a whim, decided to sell its homepage to a cryptocurrency miner or something. With a programmatic ad sold via an ad network, it’s possible that a devious ad that violates Times standards could sneak through. But you don’t hand over the top-of-homepage slot to some random adtech startup; this ad was almost certainly sold directly to some premium advertiser.

But it’s also likely that the Times doesn’t know why Google blocked this particular ad either. Whether or not an ad is too “heavy” is a decision made algorithmically by an individual installation of Chrome, and it’s dependent on what’s happening in that browser at that moment, including how much of the device’s CPU it’s using. In other words, the same ad might be fine in a fresh Chrome install on a brand new MacBook Pro but “heavy” on an old Lenovo when someone has 872 Chrome tabs open and two dozen extensions installed. (I wouldn’t know anything about that.) And as an ad exec told Digiday in August, “it’s difficult to determine just by looking at an advertising asset how ‘heavy’ it might be and whether it could be blocked under the new filter — a situation made more difficult when certain campaigns have different renditions to suit multiple devices.”

So that ad someone paid the Times to show Aron will either (a) be counted incorrectly as an ad impression or (b) be an ad impression sold but not displayed. Is either going to be a major problem for the Times? Nah. The Times likely sold that slot for a flat rate that doesn’t increase $0.01 with each impression. And these ad blocks are still a rare occurrence; in May, Google said they represent just 0.3 percent of all ads.

But still!

Look, I think most criticism of Google vis-à-vis the news business is overdone. Google didn’t break into local newsrooms and steal all the ad dollars; they outcompeted publishers by offering a much better ad product.

But this, despite its tiny impact on the vast majority of publishers, is absolutely a case of Google abusing its market power. Google is the largest seller of advertising in the world; it also controls the most popular browser in the world (~66 percent market share), Chrome. It is using the latter to harm its competitors in the former.

Even though the makers of clunky ads don’t make for sympathetic victims, this is still Google unilaterally blocking a financial arrangement between two other companies. It’s one thing for a user to decide to block ads; it’s another for Google to do it.

I think adtech exec Tom Kershaw had it right back in August: “I don’t disagree that ads that destroy people’s machines shouldn’t be shown. My concern is that Chrome is starting to build out increasing ad awareness into its tech stack as part of a self-proclaimed mission to be the sole judge and jury and policing entity of the ad industry.”

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