Who Owns Internet Ad Space?

advertise-hereGoogle made a very interesting announcement a few weeks ago that led me to find out more about the ad space on web sites. Google announced that for $2 per month they would block all ads on web sites for a customer as long as they browse through the Chrome browser.

I find this fascinating because it means that Google thinks that they have the ability to block an ad, even when they are not the one to have placed the ad in the first place. Google sells a lot of ads, and so it makes sense that they can block ads that they have placed on a web page. But when they say they can block all ads it also means that they think they have the ability to block ads placed by somebody else.

Just to be clear about what I mean by ads, look at this web page. At the top is a banner ad. At the top right of the story is an ad. And across the bottom of the article are four ads. After loading this web site multiple times I noticed that the ads changed.

It turns out that there are two kinds of ads on a web page. There are fixed ads and remnant ads. Fixed ads are placed there by the web site owner or somebody they partner with to advertise for them. Fixed ads embedded into the web page and can only be accessed by the website owner. The other kind of ads are called remnant ads. These are coded in such a way as to be available to outsiders, and anybody that has access to a website before it reaches a customer can change what is in the remnant ad space.

And as you would expect, these remnant ad spaces get changed all of the time. There are a lot of companies that sell advertising into the remnant ad space including Google (DoubleClick), Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, AOL, AppNexus, Openx, Adroll, RightMedia and dECN. It was very easy for me to spot remnant ads in the recent election season, because I swear that every web page I looked at here in Florida had a political ad for Rick Scott who was running for reelection as Governor. So somebody was being paid in Florida to put those ads onto Florida computers.

The first question this raised for me is: who owns this ad space? The web page example is from the TechCrunch web site. TechCrunch chose to make the ads open to the public and I assume they gets revenues from at least some of the parties that use that space, which is their motivation to use remnant ad space. Google thinks they have a right to go in and block whatever is on the remnant ad space on that page, so they are sure that it is theirs to grab. I know that some of the larger ISPS like cable companies are also in the advertising business, through partners, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Comcast that gave me all of the Rick Scott ads.

I was shown a recent legal opinion by one of the companies that advertises in the remnant space who was gracious enough to share it with me as long as I don’t publish it. The opinion says basically that nobody owns the remnant ad space. The legal opinion says that the act of a web site owner in making this available to the public means just that, and it can be used by anybody who somehow has access to the website before it reaches a customer. That generally is going to mean some company who is part of the chain between a web site and the customer. Obviously the web site owner can hire somebody to place ads in the remnant space. If you reach the web site through a browser then the browser owner can place the ad in there. If you get to a web site through a link on another web site like Yahoo News then they can place ads there. And your ISP also would have access to this ad space.

I really like the Google product that blocks ads. I think there are plenty of customers who would love to avoid all of those ads. Further, blocking ads means a faster Internet experience for a customer. I know there are web sites I go to that have multiple videos automatically running that seems like an extravagant use of my bandwidth. I have a 50 Mbps Internet connection and there are still web sites that load very slowly due to all of the extra videos that have been layered into the ad spaces. I also learned that remnant ads are one of the most common sources today of adware and malware and I will talk about that more in tomorrow’s blog.