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Buyers.json and Protecting Digital Advertising

by Matt Gillis, on Apr 15, 2021 12:00:00 PM

In July of 2019, IAB introduced two new technical solutions to the supply side of online advertising. Sellers.json and the SupplyChain Object brought increased transparency to the convoluted buyer market, and in turn gave buyers an opportunity to protect themselves from deceitful—or even harmful—ad fraud groups.

But this has only cleared up one side of the ad sales equation. Sellers and publishers are still left in the dark about where their ads may be coming from, leaving the end user and brand vulnerable to malicious or intrusive advertising.

Enter buyers.json and the DemandChain Object, the next step in digital advertising transparency, still in development at IAB.

What is Buyers.json and Why Is It Important?

The programmatic advertising ecosystem is far from perfect. Critics have long said that the process of buying and selling has suffered from a lack of transparency, leaving a window open for bad actors to operate in a dimly lit industry.

On top of that, the level of accessibility to the ad tech industry allows almost anyone to start buying ad space with little to no oversight or verification. This means malvertisers have the ability to work through one DSP, then quickly set up shop at another once they are found out.  

Or better yet, malvertisers will set up accounts on as many DSPs as they can and swap between seats, making it near impossible for them to be caught as they swiftly move their actions around the complex supply chain.

In the same manner in which sellers.json and ads.txt brought sell-side transparency to advertisers, buyers.json will shed light on who is buying the ad space on a publisher’s site and aid in identifying these malvertisers across all participating platforms in the programmatic ecosystem. 

Once they are discovered on one platform, their information can quickly be shared in a centralized location that all other platforms and users can access.

More than likely, buyers.json will resemble its sellers counterpart. But instead of assuring buyers their dollars are going towards legitimate digital publishers, the buyers.json file will tell a given publisher exactly who is buying their inventory. So this time, the primary beneficiaries are publishers and sell-side platforms, and we strongly believe that they deserve this transparency.

This is a great step towards a community effort in trying to clean up the advertising industry for the end user, and a pathway towards delivering a truly clean and transparent digital media ecosystem.  But gaining traction won’t be without challenges.

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Transparency Should Be a Two-way Street

In an industry that has remained unvetted for too long, increasing transparency and reducing the time and effort spent on rooting out malicious advertisers across the board will certainly make everyone's lives easier. Along with this, a cleaner, more organized industry will give every player in the digital advertising ecosystem more control over their business by allowing them to choose where they are buying, and to whom they are selling ads.

It can not be understated how beneficial to the buy-side of online advertising this new approach will be, and these kinds of standards are a great starting point to get everyone aligned.

But while the benefits to buyers.json are clear—to publishers, supply-side platforms, and end-users—this is still far from a final solution and it's going to take some earnest effort across the ecosystem to bring it to the level it needs to be at. Simply asking a buyer to identify themselves sounds reasonable.  You need to have identification to buy many things in the world today, so why not ads?

But, just asking buyers to identify themselves won’t completely solve the problem. We know that in many cases we are dealing with sophisticated criminals.  Bad actors will always be innovating, and doing what they can to circumvent the standards and controls that are put in place.  They will create false identities, hide in the complexity of the supply chain, cloak their actions, and likely even mark themselves as ‘keep confidential’ (an option that buyers.json makes available).

Getting the community to unite behind this may take some time and aggressive organizing from market participants. 

Back when seller.json was implemented, advertisers faced a similar issue and demanded this transparency from the supply side by voting with their ad dollars and refusing to buy space from publishers not running the script or those who were marked confidential. 

It remains to be seen if publishers will take up the united front needed to push market participants into implementing buyers.json.

But at the end of the day, it's not just about malvertising. Especially if bad actors are going to find their way around it. 

What this is about is having true demand side transparency and creating a fair playing field across the industry, while also—much like what sellers.json did for the sell-side— giving publishers more control over their ad inventory by providing them with an environment that is clean and well lit.

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The Bottom Line

In the end, buyers.json, combined with sellers.json, will give more control to digital publishers and advertisers and help clean up the ad industry as a whole, but the fight against malvertising is far from over.

Even with a hefty block list, ad tech vendors will still need to keep a keen eye out for malicious attacks, and invest in proper malvertising protection in order to protect their business, brand, and end users. 

Hitting these problematic buyers where it hurts the most (their wallet) will always yield the best results, and buyers.json is an excellent starting point. 

But for those who are able to get by this new identification process, the ad revenue from their malicious impressions is incentive enough for them to keep fighting.

We are in a war of attrition, and cleanAD (which prevents malicious JavaScript from executing in run-time, forcing bad actors to pay for the impressions they buy, yet see no engagement) is one of the most effective ways to drain money from the bad guys’ pockets.

We think making malware unprofitable is a much better approach than playing whack-a-mole.

Get your free trial for cleanAD here, and be sure to keep an eye out for when buyers.json and DemandChain Object go live so you can help rally the industry towards a cleaner and safer future.

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Topics:MalvertisingMalvertising 101Malvertising Solutions

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