So, the publication by JICWEBS (set up by the IAB UK and AOP, among others, to provide standards for online advertising) of a list of guidelines for publishers, advertisers and networks has to be welcomed. Sections for each part of the industry raise the questions that each should consider asking one another. The basic point is that publishers should be able to show they have the technology in place to ensure they are only serving content to human beings, rather than bot nets. Similarly, advertisers need to ask whether publishers can show what steps are taken to ensure the messages will be seen by humans, rather than computers run by fraudsters.
The guidelines are pretty basic and culminate in the real thorny issue. Ad networks are reminded that in the rush to boost income, salespeople at networks may accidentally sign up fraudulent sites. To avoid this, people running ad networks should beware of sites that spring up and suddenly attract an awful lot of traffic.
Now, you can call me an old cynic, but sometimes you need to just imagine the industry squaring up to an offender only for the transgressor to pose the retaliatory question raised by so many playground bullies who have been told they should mend their ways and instead offer the refrain "or what?" Here we come to the rub. There really is no "or what" that the industry can do. Have you ever heard of any click bot network organisers being jailed? Have you ever seen an ad network that didn't take precautionary steps outed in any way?
I mention networks because this is surely where the majority of the problem has to lie. Advertisers clearly don't want to waste their money, and the vast majority of publishers are simply putting their content out there hoping that real people will engage with it and pay the bills to keep the lights on. As we shift toward automated buying through ad networks, it's clearly here where we need the biggest click fraud prevention measures to take place. But when there's no real iron fist inside the kid glove that the IAB UK or AOP takes to the market, we're only reminded of the age-old saying that locks only keep out honest people.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no blatant critic of the guys who are serious about tackling this issue, I would wonder, though, whether they should be making more of who has signed up to its digital trading principles, known as DTSG, and -- perhaps more importantly -- who has not. Perhaps there could be more done to publish audits on the signatories to make sure they are still compliant and how they score when it comes to ensuring that media is traded fairly and displayed to human beings. I am not inside the media-buying industry, so this may already happen -- but perhaps advertisers and publishers could be offered a DTSG tick box to denote that they will only deal with companies signed up to the scheme? That would surely increase confidence. Everyone has grown up enough to know that you cannot get rid of fraud completely, but getting it down to low-single-figure percentage points is an admirable target, and offering the opportunity to only work with other companies dedicated to the noble aim has to be an option that is made available, or at least more clearly visible.
Which brings us on to the police. Again, I'm not an anarchist pointing the finger, because tracking bot net owners must be very tricky cross-border work. However, the Metropolitan Police volunteered to speak at a MediaPost event in London last October about the issue. I was very surprised and cautioned that we would be interested to hear about what they are actually doing and what has been achieved, rather than vague promises of looking into the issue. I was not entirely surprised when the officers involved pulled out on the morning of the event. Clearly, there was nothing of any importance they had to relate to the attendees.
So, that said, surely now is the time to get tough. If the bot net owners can't be found across borders immediately, then why not investigate which networks are not protecting clients or which thieves are setting up rogue sites which suddenly receive a lot of traffic and advertising overnight (via an ad exchange of course)? Why not investigate the serial offenders here who are, at worst, fraudsters -- or at best, what the police would refer to as "fences" -- the people who aid crime by handling stolen goods, pretending that the absence of evidence they have been stolen means they cannot be shown to be acting illegally.
We have the guidelines now; we have the DTSG signatories. It's truly is time for the "or what" retort to be answered with some action -- large fines or prison sentences should do the trick. This is a multibillion-dollar global fraud we're talking about here. Just because people don't get killed or injured physically, there's no excuse not to tackle it head on with the full force of the law.