When Google failed to send a top executive to a congressional hearing earlier this month, more than a few lawmakers from both parties were frustrated that CEO Sundar Pichai didn’t answer questions alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. However, Google could have saved itself plenty of embarrassment and hand-wringing by showing up to educate Capitol Hill on something it knows plenty about—bots.
On Tuesday morning at its office in New York, Google played host to a half-day event called Ad Fraud Summit, where publishers and members of the ad-tech world discussed how to fix the massive ad-fraud problem that continues to plague the industry. Meanwhile, lawmakers have struggled to understand how foreign and domestic groups are able to manipulate the ad-tech ecosystem with just a few lines of code that lets foreign and domestic actors do anything from siphoning ad revenue to tweeting propaganda.
In one presentation Tuesday, Google’s senior product manager, Per Bjorke, joined White Ops CTO Tamer Hassan onstage to talk about how bots are created and detected, something Sandberg and Dorsey both touched on to varying degrees during their hearing. Instead, in Pichai’s place on Capitol Hill was an empty chair and a name card that simply said “Google”—a sign from the Senate Intelligence Committee that there were questions they wanted answered to how Russian bots and other “bad actors” were able to manipulate voters and during and after the 2016 election.
However, while Sandberg and Dorsey addressed the challenges of bot traffic, they could have done more to explain exactly how bot networks are created. For example, Bjorke and Hassan said a bot can be created with as few as a dozen lines of code while running on a Macbook Pro that allows the bot to mimic an ad impression every 5.6 milliseconds. And while that might sound small, they can add up to millions of impressions a day. Meanwhile, a network of 1,000 machines powering a bot created with 12,000 lines of code can make it appear at first glance to be 800,000 people via fake IP addresses.
“We’re now in a world where it’s a lot more humanlike,” Bjorke said. “So where do we go from here?”
The gap between publisher ad fraud and Russian bots on social media might seem wider than the Bering Sea that separates Russia from Alaska. However, improving lawmakers’ knowledge and fostering better dialogue between Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill could help prevent anyone from doing to the U.S. government what ad fraud had done to online publishing.
During another panel, Michael Tiffany, president and co-founder of WhiteOps, said online fraud is the “great hidden explainer” for many of the modern internet’s problems. After all, what bots are buying is human attention. Tiffany mentioned Toothbrushing.net, a suspect content site discovered in 2013 that amassed millions of impressions, and said making bots less financially attractive and more risky could help curb interest in the black market of bot traffic. Whether that will save American Democracy is another question.
“The guys driving traffic to Toothbrushing.net were only doing it for the money,” Tiffany said. “They weren’t trying to swing an election of the American Dental Association.”