Senator Richard Blumenthal Is Mad At Google Again; This Time Because It Can’t Magically Stop All Scam Ads

from the that's-not-how-any-of-this-works dept

Senator Richard Blumenthal has been attacking the internet while demonstrating his own ignorance of how technology works for basically as long as I can remember. He did it back before he was Senator, when, as Attorney General of Connecticut he was eager to blame Craigslist for ads on its site. It appears that Blumenthal has learned nothing in the intervening years other than that if he blames tech companies for bad things their users do… he gets the headlines he so desperately craves. In the latest example, the Washington Post obliged and gave him his headline, claiming that Google is “still failing to clamp down on ad scams.”

This is based on a letter that Blumenthal has sent to Google, angry that the company has allowed some scammers to get their ads onto the site. Blumenthal seems quite angry.

Troublingly, Google has routinely failed to address dangerous scams, impersonation, cybercrime, and other fraud on its extensive advertising network. For example, The Markup published an investigation in May 2021 into fraud impersonating government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service. In response, Google removed the impostor ads and acknowledged the violations. However, a search for the exact keywords in the article once again returns the same deceptive ads. In another example, while Google claims to restrict ads for weight loss programs, searches for terms like “weight loss teas” are still filled with ads for dangerous “detox teas,” including laxative teas, which pose potential long term health risks. These recurring examples suggests that, while Google claims certain rules in principle, in practice these policies often appear to be dead letter law.

Except, all this really demonstrates is a near total ignorance of how any of this works. Google’s ad system is designed make it easier for anyone to purchase ads. That’s a key part of the benefit of the system, because it makes it much cheaper and easier for small businesses to buy ads that can reach a large audience. This has been incredibly useful for tons of small businesses, which otherwise would have had no equivalent platform to advertise their goods and services to a willing market.

And, so, yes, some scams are going to get through. That’s the nature of the system. Contrary to the claims that Blumenthal makes in his letter, Google does not have incentives to have scammy ads on their site. Quite the opposite. Scammy ads don’t help Google or its users, and make users a lot less willing to ever click on any ad on Google’s site.

But the issue, which Blumenthal might understand if he actually cared to talk to experts rather than just grandstand, is that content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. Some scam ads are always going to get through. That’s the nature of an automated platform at the kind of scale Google operates at.

Blumenthal highlights that using the same keywords that were exposed before, his staff found similar scammy ads, so some people may ask: “well, why doesn’t Google just have someone do that same search every day?” And, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that for a variety of reasons. First off, if they’re searching for those keywords, then that takes away from searching for other keywords — and other keywords may actually lead to even more scammy ads. No matter what, there are tradeoffs, and this is where the scale thing comes into play again: you can never search every ad at this scale. It’s literally impossible.

Google has lots of systems that try to detect scammy ads, and chances are their systems are actually good at catching a very large percentage of them. But scammers don’t just sit there and give up. They keep trying and trying again and adjusting. So if, for example, Google just blocked all ads on those keywords, it would create other problems. For one, it would limit the legitimate ads that would use those same keywords. But, it also wouldn’t stop the scammers, because they’d just keep adjusting and trying new ways to get their ads through.

Now, some people will argue that if Google can’t review every ad, then its system should be changed. And, you can make that argument if you want, but recognize what it actually means: it means that only the largest, wealthiest companies would then be able to advertise on Google, and small businesses, startups, and others would be completely shut out of the ecosystem. It would also massively drive up the cost of ads on the site. The cost to Google of having to carefully vet each ad would be quite a lot, and Google would have to turn around and build that into the ad price on the site.

Again: the real blame here should be on the scammers. And for all the huffing and puffing about Google allowing scam ads through, one could just as easily turn that around on Blumenthal: why hasn’t the FTC and local and federal law enforcement arrested all the scammers yet? After all, isn’t it their responsibility to stop the scammers?

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Comments on “Senator Richard Blumenthal Is Mad At Google Again; This Time Because It Can’t Magically Stop All Scam Ads”

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Koby (profile) says:

Affordable Review

Now, some people will argue that if Google can’t review every ad, then its system should be changed. And, you can make that argument if you want, but recognize what it actually means: it means that only the largest, wealthiest companies would then be able to advertise on Google

A potential solution would be for Google to charge a fee before the ad is submitted. Hire reviewers to review every ad based on this revenue. A $20 deposit could allow 20 minutes of review for a competent $60 per hour employee.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Naughty Autie says:

Re:

To partially paraphrase Mike: Charging an ad review fee would mean that only the largest, wealthiest companies would then be able to advertise on Google, and small businesses, startups, and others would be completely shut out of the ecosystem. It would also massively drive up the cost of ads on the site. So that doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Koby, it’s obvious that you have no idea how money works. $20 for 20 minutes of work by a $60/hour-salary-worker only works if you ignore management, payroll taxes, office space, the electricity to run the computer used in the review, the purchase price of the computer used in the review, the Internet connection needed to get the reviewed advertisement, HR costs associated with hiring and retaining reviewers, and thousands of things I’ve probably forgotten.

Maybe try replacing the rusty iron pan you’re trying to use as a brain?

Nick-B says:

All ads are garbage

I just assume that anyone who PAID for this content to be in my face is attempting to scam me. If their product isn’t capable of succeeding based on mertis by competing among all others in a big list of products on a site like Amazon… Then I don’t want to look at it. When I search for something, EVEN IF WHAT I WANT IS IN THE AD, I will scroll past the “sponsored item” post and view the actual original link.

While we’re at it, I hate when people buy ads using the keywords of competitors products. I can’t BELIEVE how many times I searched for an app on the iOS app store for a very specific app (Burger King), and had their competitors app show up first (McDonalds). Do these companies really think that when I type in the EXACT name of one company I am unsure of what I want and can be swayed into downloading a totally DIFFERENT app?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Do these companies really think that when I type in the EXACT name of one company I am unsure of what I want and can be swayed into downloading a totally DIFFERENT app?

I expect that companies may have customer service portals/email addresses. You might let them know how you feel about their advertising policies, and how they influence your shopping habits. If they receive enough such feedback, they might even change their advertising policies.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re:

No, Apple (the one feeding you the ad) thinks that if you search for the BK app, you might also want to use the McD app, and McD who pays for the ad, likely expects that there is enough overlap in customer bases that those looking for apps similar to the McD app might also want the McD app.

Of course, you’ve cherry picked an example that is admittedly the most absurd. But this line of arguement has been dripping for years in search, and the general case which drives the core search engine functions doesn’t deal with targeted searches as commonly. The search engine isn’t taught, generally, to deal with brands, because lots of people will search a brand trademark generically.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re:

I just assume that anyone who PAID for this content to be in my face is attempting to scam me. If their product isn’t capable of succeeding based on mertis by competing among all others in a big list of products on a site like Amazon… Then I don’t want to look at it.

While I certainly can understand the sentiment, I’d just like to point out that many video games have failed in the past precisely because of a complete lack of marketing. For example, I loved Mirror’s Edge, so I was looking forward to the sequel, but I didn’t even find out it came out until I read about how it failed commercially long after the fact. The publisher simply failed to market the game at all. And this was for something that I actually knew of made by a large company.

Anonymous Coward says:

The cost to Google of having to carefully vet each ad would be quite a lot, and Google would have to turn around and build that into the ad price on the site.

… sounds about right, actually. Increase the cost of ads where automated scanning gives a high probability of the ad being a scam, to cover the cost of the second moderation layer.

Or penalize a scammer retroactively (with this provision in the contract, to overcome squeals of unfairness).

Anonymous Coward says:

Ads on the internet are a pox. If I want something I know how to search for it.

Given how many times I’ve run into places where a whole crap load of people got malware because they didn’t block scripts while I sailed through without issue, it tells me that on the whole the majority of ads aren’t validated as being legitimate offers rather than scams or methods to bypass your computer security.

Everyone wants you to see their ads because that helps fund their sites. When you catch malware from such, suddenly no one wants to talk to you, acknowledge you exist, or address your issue. Since the clean up of such is on me, so is the cure for that, not displaying ads at all.

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