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Google has run adverts on hundreds of questionable websites including sanctioned sites in Iran and Russia, according to new research that has prompted calls for greater transparency and oversight of its $223bn-a-year ads business.
The search giant displays search ads on its own platform but also on other third-party websites in the so-called Google Search Partner network. These include its other platforms such as video site YouTube. In addition, when developers create search engines for their own websites using a Google tool, the company serves ads next to those search results as part of the GSP.
Research by Adalytics, a digital ads analysis group, showed adverts from big brands and government agencies being placed on hundreds of GSP network sites in ways that violate Google’s own policies.
Some sites featured hardcore pornography and pirated content, while others were on the US Treasury’s official sanctions list. Adverts from the FBI, US Secret Service and the US Treasury were found on a Russian and an Iranian sanctioned website, for example.
Adalytics said some of the websites were likely to have received money for hosting the adverts, via a revenue sharing agreement with Google, though it was impossible to estimate how much.
Google said it was committed to complying with all applicable sanctions, and also would no longer allow adverts to be shown on the adult websites flagged in the report.
“We’ll of course review the report, but our analysis of the sites and limited information already shared with us did not identify ad revenue being shared with a single sanctioned entity,” said Dan Taylor, Google’s vice-president of global ads.
He also suggested that Adalytics had previously published “inaccurate reports”. Google previously rejected an Adalytics report alleging that YouTube was serving adverts on partner websites in ways that hid them from users. Adalytics defended the methodology behind its research against such claims at the time.
Google’s policies state that it “doesn’t provide information detailing the website where your ad was shown” on GSP.
“Something very deep has broken down at Google that they can’t identify these sites,” said Laura Edelson, assistant professor of computer science at Northeastern University.
“Advertisers for the sake of reputations and legal liability need to demand a heck of a lot more transparency than what they’re getting,” she added.
Google has attracted global scrutiny for its dominance in the digital marketing sector and is defending itself in a landmark antitrust case brought by the US Department of Justice which accuses it of squashing competition.
In the report, Adalytics published dozens of screenshots of adverts featured against the questionable content, apparently in violation of Google’s policies, and said that many were placed by big brands including Apple, Amazon, BMW, Goldman Sachs, KPMG, Walmart and Meta. In some instances, alcohol brands were also being advertised on children’s websites.
Ads from political fundraising campaigns for politicians including US senators Ted Cruz and Amy Klobuchar were also found on the violating sites, according to Adalytics, which used open source data and web-crawlers to scour 7.2mn sites and also consulted with brands and agencies.
“For over eight years now I have raised grave concerns with the [Federal Trade Commission] and the Department of Justice over the extent to which digital advertising intermediaries maintain a concentrated ecosystem rife with fraud,” Mark Warner, the Democratic chair of the Senate select committee on intelligence, said in a statement.
“The monetisation of sanctioned entities’ websites should be the final straw for the government to take action to clean up this market,” he added.
Google, as well as rival Meta, have moved recently towards deploying new artificial intelligence-driven advertising systems, encouraging brands to rely on their technology to target ads effectively, but sharing little about how these systems work. In some cases, Google’s AI systems automatically placed ads on the violating sites, Adalytics said.
Responding to the research, some advertisers raised concerns that they have little control over where their ads are placed, and criticised Google for automatically opting them into the GSP network.
One global media head at a big brand, who did not wish to be named for fear of damaging their relationship with Google, said that its clients wanted the tech group to open up its systems to third-party verification.