When Alexander Zhukov stood trial last year, he was accused of defrauding American companies, including The New York Times and the Purina pet care brand, on millions of dollars. The then 41-year-old started a business that promised to show online ads to humans, but instead placed those ads on an elaborate network of fake websites where they were only seen by the court, the court said. bots. Yet Zhukov’s defense did not center on his innocence or remorse. On the contrary, he said he was giving the online economy exactly what it wanted: cheap traffic, whatever the source.
“There was nothing to hide,” he said. said on the stand in May 2021. “We were doing business. We do not scam or cheat.
The Brooklyn federal courthouse disagreed, and in November 2021 Zhukov was sentenced to 10 years in prison. By extraditing the Russian cybercriminal from Bulgaria, American justice has sent the message that this type of crime has consequences. Yet Zhukov’s testimony hints at an uncomfortable truth: the online economy is poised to look the other way as bots distort it and line the pockets of cybercriminals.
The Elon Musk v. Twitter should rekindle those concerns. Musk, who says Twitter underestimated millions of fake accounts on its platform, was given additional ammunition when former Twitter security chief Peiter Zatko, known as Mudge, became a whistleblower in August. Mudge claims that executive bonuses were tied to increases in daily user numbers, meaning they had no incentive to crack down on bots — an allegation that Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has refuse.
Robots pollute the internet. Fake online users account for up to 40% of all web traffic, according to some estimates. Ad fraud researchers describe a Kafkaesque scheme where companies pay millions to advertise to bots and seek their “opinions.” Yet the digital advertising industry has become so accustomed to working with inflated numbers that few are willing to unmask the fake clicks that fuel large swathes of the online economy.
In June, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), an American industry group, published a blog post who estimated that ad fraud costs US advertisers $120 billion every year. A few hours after its publication, these statements were deleted. John Wolfe, the ANA’s director of communications, told WIRED the numbers had been removed because they were no longer current, but declined to provide new numbers.