Mark Bergen, Bloomberg, November 22, 2016
AppNexus Inc., operator of one of the biggest digital advertising services, has barred Breitbart News from using its ad-serving tools because the conservative online publisher violated its hate speech rules.
AppNexus scrutinized Breitbart’s website after U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump tapped Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart, to be White House chief strategist last week. The digital ad firm decided the publication had breached a policy against content that incites violence, said AppNexus spokesman Joshua Zeitz.
“We did a human audit of Breitbart and determined there were enough articles and headlines that cross that line, using either coded or overt language,” he said.
AppNexus’s decision comes while the two largest digital ad sellers, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., grapple with the rise of fake news — misleading or intentionally deceptive articles that appear in social news feeds and online search results. Last week, both companies said they would pull advertising support from sites that spread “misinformation.”
The AppNexus case is different. Zeitz stressed that the publication is not being targeted for its editorial position or for spreading misinformation. “This blacklist was solely about hate speech violation,” he said. Other ad tech firms are sticking with Breitbart.
AppNexus, backed by large companies like Microsoft Corp., News Corp. and WPP Plc, is an important source of ad dollars for many online publications. The company was second to Google in the automated ad serving market for publishers, earning $2.1 billion in revenue in 2014, and paying $1.9 billion of that to publishers, Cowen & Co. has estimated.
The move by AppNexus underscores the predicament technology companies face trying to police editorial content without limiting free speech. Google and Facebook have banned content over hate speech, yet they move carefully when it comes to publications with a political bent. Twitter Inc. recently purged right-wing users, including a prominent Breitbart writer, for violating its terms of service. Facebook was criticized when conservative websites struggled to access its popular “trending news” section.
Other ad tech companies whose networks work with Breitbart defended their partnerships as evidence of the web’s openness. Ad firm OpenX is “proud to support a free and vibrant internet,” said spokeswoman Lekha Rao.
“We do not make it our business to police editorial content,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, Chief Marketing Officer for Pubmatic, which offers tracking tools that appear on Breitbart.com.
AppNexus, however, frames its decision as maintaining standards for the marketers whose ads run next to Breitbart’s headlines. “We would ban this as quickly as a site that has pornography and violence,” said Zeitz.