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Yahoo's Right Media Accused Of Offering Deceptive Ads

Harvard assistant professor and spyware researcher Benjamin Edelman's accusations may not come as a surprise to those in the online ad industry.

Yahoo's Right Media online ad market offers ads designed to deceive, according to Harvard assistant professor and spyware researcher Benjamin Edelman.

Right Media, acquired by Yahoo in 2007, is a marketplace for unsold ad space, remnant inventory that Edelman characterizes as less desirable.

"Who wants to buy that space?" Edelman asks in a report published Wednesday on Right Media's practices. "In part, bottom-feeders whose ads have a tendency to deceive."

Edelman supports his accusations with examples of what he claims are deceptive ads available through Right Media. These include "fake user interface ads, false claims of a buddy's supposed romantic interest presented in false widget-type design elements, false statements that 'you have won,' fake user interface ads using the word 'free' in violation of applicable regulation, and miscellaneous other deceptive ads."

The company's Media Guard ad classification system used to categorize certain ads as deceptive. But it no longer does so, according to Edelman.

"Right Media renamed the 'deceptiveness' category of characteristics -- now calling those categories 'ambiguous or unclear attributes,' " he explains in his report. "But Right Media's first classification system was more clear and more straightforward: The listed characteristics are exactly designed to deceive, and Right Media only makes the problem harder to understand by whitewashing its characterization of the ads' effects."

Yahoo, meanwhile, rejects the notion that Right Media is doing anything wrong.

"Right Media is deeply committed to providing a high-quality experience for advertisers, agencies, networks and publishers," a Yahoo spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "We have rigorous platform standards and guidelines for our members that we expect them to follow, which include preventing the use of our system in a misleading, deceptive or illegal manner. For example, since Exchange members classify their own content, we expect all advertisers to accurately categorize their creatives and associated landing pages, and we expect that publishers will select the types of ads that are appropriate for their Web sites. Our Media Guard tool for creatives also provides additional safeguards for the Exchange. If we learn that an ad is in conflict with laws or regulations, our expectations or our guidelines, we take action to remove it from the Exchange as quickly as possible."

Edelman contends that Yahoo's response ignores key issues. "Right Media claims to prohibit using its system in a misleading, deceptive, or illegal manner -- but Right Media's own ad categories reveal that Right Media knows deception is widespread," his report states. "If Right Media wants to put teeth behind its prohibitions on deceptive and illegal uses of its system, it should kick out the many ads that violate these prohibitions."

Edelman's accusations may not come as a surprise to those in the online ad industry.

At the Web 2.0 Summit panel "Defending Web 2.0 From Virtual Blight" last November, panel moderator Jonah Stein, founder of ItsTheROI.com, a search engine marketing company in San Francisco, pointed out that Right Media allowed its advertisers to opt out of deceptive advertising.

In a phone interview, Stein said that it was fair to place some of the blame on Right Media. "It's clearly an issue, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "It's one that's been around for a long time."

"I think there's something deeply hypocritical about accepting an ad that you think it deceptive," he explained.

At the same time, Stein says that everyone in the advertising ecosystem needs to weigh the ethics of their choices. "The ethical responsibility belongs to everyone in the food chain," he said. "Any publisher that is willing to put deceptive ads on a site because they pay better has at least an equal responsibility."

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