On July 21, I published a Red, White & Blog column (WTF Is Publir And Who Is Behind It) based on a report by ad-tech watchdog group Check My Ads alleging that it was utilizing its ad network to help monetize some questionable publishers, including one that was kicked off of Reddit for helping to organize the January 6th insurrection.
As it turns out, Publir is a publisher monetization platform that claims it is 100% neutral and transparent and the person behind it is founder Anand Ramanujan, the former CTO of Real Clear Politics, which he says is a client of Publir but is otherwise unaffiliated. In the following Q&A, Ramanujan explains Publir's policies, business model and why some questionable website publishers are part of its client list.
Red, White & Blog: We ran a column a couple of weeks ago titled, “WTF Is Publir And Who Is Behind It.” You’re the guy behind it, so here’s an opportunity for you to tell our readers about that in a verbatim Q&A.
Anand Ramanujan: We are a small company. I bootstrapped the company back in 2011 and we pivoted to becoming a platform that incorporated -- not just ad optimization -- but also subscriptions and crowdfunding and an element of ecommerce to help publisher monetize themselves.
RW&B: When we published a column two weeks ago based on Check My Ads report alleging Publir has been monetizing some questionable sites, we told our readers to read it and be the judge. But here’s an opportunity for you to address it. What is the problem with that report, and what is the truth from your perspective?
Ramanujan: There are multiple problems. First, the report insinuates somehow that Real Clear Politics is in any way associated with Publir. I just want to make it very clear that Real Clear does not have an ownership stake or any stake in Publir. Real Clear is a client of Publir, just like we have 75 other clients that we work with. But that’s the extent of our relationship.
Two, the report accuses us of being part of “dark pools,” and I’m not even sure what that means. They say that because we work with sites that are higher quality -- like Real Clear Politics and a bunch of others -- and we also work with sites that might not be that reputable, that we are somehow able to use the fact that we work with these high-quality domains to “juice the revenues” for lesser-known domains, and that is not true at all.
We work with about three dozen programmatic partners, and every single domain that we onboard onto our platform is subject to our demand sources’ approval, and each domain is approved based on the merits of that domain name and what happens with that site.
Once a site is approved, the ads that show up on that site are based on the content of that site, the audience that goes to that domain, the traffic level of the domain, and the performance of ads on that domain.
There is no way for us to use an existing customer’s site that is performing well to try and get revenue to a site that is not performing well. That is not the way we work with the programmatic ad marketplace.
There were also a couple of insinuations with some specific publications that were on Reddit and got banned that applied to be part of Publir. And each time someone applies to be part of Publir, there are certain criteria that we follow.
We make sure a site doesn’t have copyright violations of plagiarized content. We want to makes sure that site is not strictly made-for-advertising. We don’t work with those sites. And lastly, obviously, any sites that have illegal material.
But beyond those criteria, our philosophy has always been that we don’t work with advertisers directly. We work with SSP and DSPs, and the goal of our platform is to connect the programmatic marketplace with publishers.
So when a site applies to be part of Publir, we check those criteria and submit the site for approval to all our demand partners. And if a demand partner approves them and wants to work with them, we facilitate that.
RW&B: If we can follow up on a couple of points? One on the Real Clear Politics relationship: full disclosure you were the former CTO and you were listed as a partner and they are a current client of yours. That’s all accurate, correct?
Ramanujan: Yes, that’s all accurate. I was CTO up until December of 2020. And they are a client of ours.
RW&B: Regarding publishers that apply and are accepted as clients of Publir, we understand that if there are no demand partners approving them, you don’t serve ads to them. And we checked to see if patriots.win, which is the former The_Donald subreddit that was banned from Reddit for helping to organize the insurrection, is a client, but they are not running ads. We just checked.
And QAnon conspiracy site greatawakening.win also is not being served ads.
But you’re not just an advertising monetization platform. You offer a multifaceted way for publishers to monetize themselves, including subscription models, crowd-funding, ecommerce, etc. So how are you helping those sites monetize themselves?
Ramanujan: Our subscription model and our crowdfunding model is not appropriate for every site. With the two sites you mentioned, they were only working with our ad optimization model and we are not helping them monetize their site in any other way.
RW&B: But they’re not running an ads? How are you optimizing advertising for them?
Ramanujan: They’re not generating any revenue from us.
RW&B: So how are they clients? That’s some of the confusion we have and I think it’s some our readers might have?
Ramanujan: Anybody can sign up to be a client of Publir, and we will make our best attempt to try and monetize them through the programmatic channels we work with. If we can’t monetize them, we let them know and we five them time so that if they can fix this or that issue, maybe we can start to work together again, but right now we can’t help monetize you.
And oftentimes, if these issues are small, like an issue with the navigation of the site or some piece of content that gets flagged, we tell them and they can reapply when the problem has been fixed.
Our default policy is whenever we onboard a client and we can’t get them approved for advertising right away, we don’t deactivate them. We keep them on knowing that we have identified some issues that they need to fix on their end.
Normally, we give them six months to a year to fix their problems. The reason we don’t deactivate those accounts is, to the extent they were running on our platform, they’ve accrued some ad revenue and we want them to be able to log in and grab any data that they generated on our platform.
That’s our standard process. So they’re not clients in the sense that we are actively working to monetize them. They tried at one point and we tried to get them monetized though our demand partners, and it didn’t quite work out the way either of us wanted.
RW&B: So you do believe, if they address some of those issues, that you could be serving ads through your ad network to sites that publish QAnon conspiracies, election denial or organizing insurrections. Do you think that’s appropriate?
Ramanujan: That’s not really what I said. Our process is: we don’t look at what specific content is on a site. We just know that issues have been identified that need to be fixed. And part of the process is, we give them time to fix the issues.
RW&B: So one more time on those sites particularly? You’re not helping them in any way monetize, including crowdfunding? Because that would seem a natural for them.
Ramanujan: That is correct.
RW&B: Do you think the mainstream advertisers who do work with you on your other more mainstream sites as part of your network want to be associated with a platform that helps monetize sites that they don’t want to be associated with? Should they be correlated?
Ramanujan: We are a platform and our job is to connect the advertising market to the publisher market and if advertisers don’t want to work with those sites, they don’t need to. We are very transparent. We publish every single publisher we work with in our json file, which happens automatically when we sign someone up. And we don’t want to be in a position to make editorial judgement about what content is right and what’s not right.
Journalism is the first take of history and there have been a lot of reports published that often are not right. The first stake is not always the right take. And the more voices we have out there freely expressing what they believe and what they think, the better it is for the marketplace of ideas. And that’s what we believe.
I don’t think there’s anything different from us and any other platform. You could argue the same thing about Facebook. Facebook has a ton of content that they don’t have the bandwidth to moderate. And they don’t censor somebody before they even write a post of create a group. But if something comes to their attention, I’m sure they take action and they have policies in place to act on that. And we are not any different than that.
We allow everybody to work with us and we look at the activity onboarded on our platform and then we let the marketplace decide if they want to work with a certain site or not. And we stand by that. That’s who we are.
RW&B: So you don’t think platforms should be held accountable for facilitating or disseminating content that is harming society in explicit ways?
Ramanujan: By the same standards would you hold, let’s say, The New York Times or The Washington Post accountable for some of the reporting that they might have gotten wrong?
Ramanujan: They got the whole WMD in the Iraq war wrong and we later found out that none of that was true. In the heat of the moment those organizations are reporting the facts and information as best they can. And if we start to censor people for reporting the first take of history, because they might be wrong, I think that’s where we get into trouble.
I feel like when you talk about misinformation or disinformation you can’t just single out one side of the vertical ideology.
RW&B: You’re right. Truth is malleable and changes over time based on new information, but to your point, The New York Times and The Washington Post put significant resources behind doing the best job they can in that moment in time and if it’s wrong they correct if over time.
You’re also right about political discourse and opinion up to the point when it involves false information that causes public harm. Denying an election that was was fairly conducted and inciting people to have an insurrection or cause violence, because of that, is over the line.
Ramanujan: I definitely think inciting people to violence is over the line. The First Amendment doesn’t protect that. If you incite people to organize and commit violence it doesn’t protect that. And if there is a group or organizations engaging in that there are legal recourses to deal with that.RW&B: Well thank you for being fully disclosed.