Mobile Ads with Standards

As we reported in February, global measurement solution company DoubleVerify uncovered an elaborate fraud compromising programmatic exchanges in web publishing. The fraud was so impressive because of the widespread adoption of ads.txt, a standard introduced in 2017 by the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) Technology Laboratory.

In the mobile app ecosphere, there is currently less of a sense of community than within web publishing, which makes fraud an even bigger threat. But there is a strong indication that mobile is getting safer, as the IAB rolls out app-ads.txt to provide a similar solution for mobile advertising. This extension of ads.txt (“ads” stands for “authorized digital sellers”) also covers OTT video apps, a rapidly growing segment.

Of course, this is just one kind of fraud, called “spoofing,” which drives up expenses by selling counterfeit inventory. DoubleVerify’s VP Product Management Roy Rosenfeld told me that fraud cases on mobile devices occur most frequently on game apps and utilities, together accounting for 57 percent of all fraudulent mobile apps . For instance, a user might download a simple flashlight or calculator app, and while that part of the software appears to be working properly, it could have another unseen internal function the user isn’t aware of. Also, while a laptop might be used at home for limited sessions, a mobile device is carried around with the user and is always on, allowing ample opportunities for malware to attack. With games, especially simple time-wasters that are popular on mobile devices, the programs are easy to copycat, and unsuspecting users will download a malicious spinoff.

“Instead of ad fraud, other malware…hijacks and compromises the entire device,” Rosenfeld explained. He added that the widespread use of mobile software developments kits (SDK) enables app creators to build their app without coding, but that if the ready-made code in SDKs includes malware, the resulting fraudulent app can be passed around without creator or user knowing that it’s infected. In contrast to the more developed web publishing industry, “on the mobile side of things there are a lot of smaller players who don’t fully understand how the ecosystem works,” Rosenfeld stated. And yet because mobile usage is so high, advertisers will pay to reach these users, giving credence to Rosenfeld’s mantra: “fraud follows the money.”

To return to ad exchanges, the same lack of understanding affects mobile ad buying. Eric Bozinny, Director, Inventory Quality at programmatic platform PubMatic sees a strong need for the new app-ads.txt standard, which arrived in its final version last month.

“In-app inventory has an even higher risk for spoofing than desktop inventory due to the lack of transparency into how code is executed within an app,” Bozinny said. “Unlike with desktop spoofing, there is no technical way to determine the actual traffic source being spoofed by an app without cracking into the app itself. That is why the app-ads.txt standard is so important to the industry.”

He also found that “there is an overall willingness with major app publishers and platforms to adopt.” He added, “In fact, adoption is already in the works for them. Perhaps the biggest obstacle will be adoption with more niche audiences who are looking for incremental revenue through programmatic, like app developers, who may not be as aware of the important role it plays in digital advertising and the industry.”

According to Bozinny, if adopted rates follow the initial ads.txt introduction, in 2017, 10 percent of mobile publishers could be onboard by summertime. (Currently, ads.txt adoption is around 90 percent.) “We are seeing that about four percent of our top apps have adopted app-ads.txt thus far, with a marked increase in adoption week-over-week…To apply our learnings from app-ads.txt, PubMatic has similarly adopted an aggressive deadline of May 1 to begin enforcing the policy for all app inventory, coinciding with the release of our app-ads.txt crawler and filtering system,” he stated.

About the new standard, Roy Rosenfeld is “extremely excited.” From the 2017 ads.txt adoption, “we learned that if we motivate app developers and publishers, they will go in the right direction,” he said.

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