Google cancels UK ads from shady rehab clinic referrers already banned in US

Another day, another way tech giants are found to be profiting handsomely from unsavory ad practices. Today brings the news, as reported by the Sunday Times, that Google has reaped “millions” from shady companies that advertise online as help lines for people suffering from addiction, but in reality funnel those people to expensive private clinics, earning huge commissions.

The basic idea is simple, and sound: someone searching for “help quitting pain pills” or something like that should be connected with the appropriate resources, and ostensibly that’s what help lines like those investigated by the Sunday Times’ undercover crew do.

But profit-oriented private clinics, which charge tens of thousands of dollars for their services, have begun offering huge referral rewards for sending patients their direction. And the referrers, in order to snag these people in need before the competition, have begun paying more and more for prime Google placement.

The report shows that referrers were paying as much as £200, around $270, for a single clickthrough. But that’s just a drop in the bucket if they successfully refer someone to a clinic, earning ten or twenty grand. Plus it bought them consultation with Google representatives who reportedly helped keep them at the top of the results.

It may be that the people looking for help did eventually find it. But naturally, they were not informed of any of these financial arrangements.

Might be nice to know that the ostensibly objective help line you’re calling is earning huge commissions from the places it refers you to, right? That’s why “patient brokering,” as it’s sometimes called, is banned in much of the US. And why Google doesn’t allow these kinds of ads here; it banned the whole category in September.

In a statement, Google said that it had today decided to make that ban apply to the UK as well.

Substance abuse is a growing crisis and has led to deceptive practices by intermediaries that we need to better understand. In the US, we restricted ads entirely in this category and we have decided to extend this to the UK as we consult with local experts to update our policy and find a better way to connect those that need help with the treatment they need.

One needn’t be too much of a cynic to find a few things worth asking. If it’s a question of medical ethics, why were the ads allowed in the UK at all? Why not extend the ban globally? Why did it take an investigative report to cause Google to “decide” to change its policy when presumably it had the tools to identify these problems itself?

There are, of course, major differences in how these clinics are regulated and allowed to operate between the US and UK, with (as you might expect) less regulation in the former. So a one-size-fits-all ban would be premature and possibly even harmful to those looking for help. Consulting with experts is a good start.

Yet one would hope that, having found pervasive slimy tactics in a business in one major market, Google would have been more proactive about looking into the presence of those tactics elsewhere. After all, it may be a niche but this wasn’t chump change: we’re talking about millions of dollars here.

This appears to be just another entry in the log of internet companies making money from both good actors and bad, only cutting off the bad when someone else points it out. They’re happy to apologize and change the policy afterwards, but seem to have remarkably little foresight when it comes to finding such things on their own.

Thousands of major sites are taking silent anti-ad-blocking measures

It’s no secret that ad blockers are putting a dent in advertising-based business models on the web. This has produced a range of reactions, from relatively polite whitelisting asks (TechCrunch does this) to dynamic redeployment of ads to avoid blocking. A new study finds that nearly a third of the top 10,000 sites on the web are taking ad blocking countermeasures, many silent and highly sophisticated.

Seeing the uptick in anti-ad-blocking tech, University of Iowa and UC Riverside researchers decided to perform a closer scrutiny (PDF) of major sites than had previously been done. Earlier estimates, based largely on visible or obvious anti-ad-blocking means such as pop-ups or broken content, suggested that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of popular sites were doing this — but the real number seems to be an order of magnitude higher.

The researchers visited thousands of sites multiple times, with and without ad-blocking software added to the browser. By comparing the final rendered code of the page for blocking browsers versus non-blocking browsers, they could see when pages changed content or noted the presence of a blocker, even if they didn’t notify the user.

As you can see above, 30.5 percent of the top 10,000 sites on the web as measured by Alexa are using some sort of ad-blocker detection, and 38.2 percent of the top 1,000. (Again, TechCrunch is among these, but to my knowledge we just ask visitors to whitelist the site.)

Our results show that anti-adblockers are much more pervasive than previously reported…our hypothesis is that a much larger fraction of websites than previously reported are “worried” about adblockers but many are not employing retaliatory actions against adblocking users yet.

It turns out that many ad providers are offering anti-blocking tech in the form of scripts that produce a variety of “bait” content that’s ad-like — for instance, images or elements named and tagged in such a way that they will trigger ad blockers, tipping the site off. The pattern of blocking, for instance not loading any divs marked “banner_ad” but loading images with “banner” in the description, further illuminates the type and depth of ad blocking being enforced by the browser.

Sites can simply record this for their own purposes (perhaps to gauge the necessity of responding) or redeploy ads in such a way that the detected ad blocker won’t catch.

In addition to detecting these new and increasingly common measures being taken by advertisers, the researchers suggest some ways that current ad blockers may be able to continue functioning as intended.

One way involves dynamically rewriting the JavaScript code that checks for a blocker, forcing it to think there is no blocker. However, this could break some sites that render as if there is no blocker when there actually is.

A second method identifies the “bait” content and fails to block it, making the site think there’s no blocker in the browser and therefore render ads as normal — except the real ads will be blocked.

That will, of course, provoke new and even more sophisticated measures by the advertisers, and so on. As the paper concludes:

To keep up the pressure on publishers and advertisers in the long term, we believe it is crucial that adblockers keep pace with anti-adblockers in the rapidly escalating technological arms race. Our work represents an important step in this direction.

The study has been submitted for consideration at the Network and Distributed Systems Security Symposium in February of 2018.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin