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AT&T restores service to Breitbart after buying out upstart ad company

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‘Breitbart inquired how it could return to our platform, satisfied our requirements, and is reinstated,’ a representative said

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In 2016, the ad tech company AppNexus took a stand against hate speech. Just two weeks after the election of Donald Trump, CEO Brian O’Kelley announced he was dropping service to Breitbart. A string of articles on Muslim immigrants and female genital mutilation had been beyond the pale, O’Kelley said, leaving him no choice but to cut ties with the then-prominent right-wing site.

AppNexus specializes in technology for auctioning online ads, which helps websites make money targeting ads to specific audiences. Cutting off that technology meant less money for Breitbart — a tangible cost for the site’s controversial content and, for critics, a minor but real check on online speech.

“We do have a real obligation to use advertising to support some level of ethical media,” O’Kelley told Business Insider in the wake of the decision. “I love the fact we can set an example.”

But nearly three years later, that example isn’t quite so firm. AppNexus’ new parent company Xandr confirmed to The Verge that it has restored service to Breitbart as part of a reinstatement plan.

“Breitbart inquired how it could return to our platform, satisfied our requirements, and is reinstated,” a Xandr representative said in a statement. The representative declined to elaborate on the requirements Breitbart had fulfilled or its broader reinstatement plan. Sources say Infowars, which was blacklisted around the same time, has yet to return to the platform.

Reached by The Verge, Breitbart confirmed that it had been reaccepted by AppNexus. “After a very thorough review of our content, AT&T concluded that it complied with their content guidelines,” a representative said.

The change in policy may have to do with AppNexus’ recent change in ownership. In August of 2018, AppNexus was acquired by AT&T, which has incorporated the company under its Xandr subsidiary. That’s meant a number of management changes as the company integrates into AT&T’s broader ad tech holdings.

O’Kelley himself has taken a backseat in the wake off the sale, assisting with the transition but foregoing a management role under the new owners. On his LinkedIn profile, he lists himself as “strategic advisor to Xandr.”

Still, the move has been controversial for many AppNexus employees, so much so that Xandr CEO Brian Lesser was forced to address the decision in a recent town hall with employees.

“Xandr’s goal is to protect both freedom of expression and the quality of content using our ad platform,” a Xandr representative said when reached by The Verge. “Our policy clearly prohibits content that depicts dangerous hate speech, and our customers can always choose to exclude their advertising from certain publishers.”

AT&T declined further comment beyond the Xandr statement.

Update 2:13PM ET: Updated with comment from Breitbart.