Democracy & Elections

The Lawfare Podcast: Why the Online Advertising Market is Broken

Jen Patja, Evelyn Douek, Quinta Jurecic, Tim Hwang
Thursday, January 20, 2022, 12:00 PM

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
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In December 2020, ten state attorneys general sued Google, alleging that the tech giant had created an illegal monopoly over online advertising. The lawsuit is ongoing, and just this January, new allegations in the states’ complaint were freshly unsealed: the states have accused Google of tinkering with its ad auctions to mislead publishers and advertisers and expand its own power in the marketplace. (Google told the Wall Street Journal that the complaint was “full of inaccuracies and lacks legal merit.”)

The complaint touches on a crucial debate about the online advertising industry: does it, well, work? This week on Arbiters of Truth, our series on the online information ecosystem, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke with Tim Hwang, Substack’s general counsel and the author of the book “Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet.” Tim argues that online advertising, which underpins the structure of the internet as we know it today, is a house of cards—that advertisers aren’t nearly as good as they claim at monetizing our attention, even as they keep marketing it anyway. So how worried should we be about this structure collapsing? If ads can’t convince us to buy things, what does that mean about our understanding of the internet? And what other possibilities are there for designing a better online space?


Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.
Evelyn Douek is an Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School on the topic of private and public regulation of online speech. Prior to attending HLS, Evelyn was an Associate (clerk) to the Honourable Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia. She received her LL.B. from UNSW Sydney, where she was Executive Editor of the UNSW Law Journal.
Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Tim Hwang is Substack’s general counsel and the author of the book “Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet.”

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