If you’ve ever visited a major news publication on the internet, you’ve probably run into AppNexus without knowing it.
It’s one of many ad tech companies that track you so advertisers can target you more accurately. It’s one of the biggest rivals to Facebook and Google — so much so, it’s reportedly considering an IPO in the next few months.
So when AppNexus decides to kick a publisher off its platform, it matters.
Late last year, the company blacklisted Breitbart, citing hate speech. The thinking is that advertisers shouldn’t be supporting sites which sell hate speech, porn, or other inappropriate content.
Speaking to Business Insider, AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley said he had made the decision personally, and that he had spent hours reading Breitbart’s website to determine what was hate speech, and what wasn’t.
“I spent about four hours — it was actually a painful four hours — because I have political differences with Breitbart, but when I make these decisions, I work really hard not to let my own political bias play in,” he said. “We all have biases, right? So some headlines were very hard to read, but they weren’t hateful. Our definition of hate is more around the nature of speech, so whether it would incite violence against a particular minority. That bar is pretty high, it’s not just nasty, or offensive, it’s that [something] is inciting violence.”
O’Kelley cited Breitbart articles about female genital mutilation and Muslim immigrants as examples.
He added: “I did a tonne of research to try and understand what that line would be, and because of the political implications in the US, you don’t mess with Breitbart if you don’t want reaction from the White House. It was a scary decision, and I thought we might lose a tonne of business over it. Fortunately, I don’t think we did.”
The reason why O’Kelley feared reprisals from the White House is because US president Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is a founding board member of Breitbart. The reprisals didn’t happen, but AppNexus’ communications vice president, Josh Zeitz, also present in the interview with Business Insider was the subject of at least one Breitbart article and, O’Kelley said, anti-Semitic abuse.
“We do have a real obligation to use advertising to support some level of ethical media,” said O’Kelley.
AppNexus has also put conspiracy theory site InfoWars on its blacklist.
Breitbart was never a direct AppNexus client, so the direct effect of the ban is negligible.
But O’Kelley said the ban encouraged other companies to follow suit. Breitbart eventually lost 1,000 advertisers, according to analysis from campaign group Sleeping Giants.
“We set an example that made it OK to ban them,” he said. “The only major companies left that work with Breitbart are Amazon and Google.”
This is backed up by analysis from Ghostery, which flags ad trackers on any site, and shows Amazon Associates and Google AdSense trackers on Breitbart.
O’Kelley said it was difficult to try and police content without also violating free speech, something Facebook and Google are also trying to deal with. When it comes to sites like Breitbart, he’s seemingly unafraid to make his intent clear.
“I love the fact we can set an example,” he said. “And even though we may not be big enough to completely destroy someone’s revenue, you now see articles coming out about Breitbart rethinking its business model and considering being more mainstream.”