Payment Firms Caught Up in U.S. Probes of Russia Political Ads

(Bloomberg) -- Payments providers have long been aware of financial risks from cyber attacks and money laundering, but U.S. authorities have added something new to worry about: Doing business with dubious social media advertisers.

Over the past few days, top lawyers from Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have been grilled over how their platforms were used by Russian actors to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As part of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee hearing, legislators released images of some of the ads, along with information on how much they cost, when they ran and how audiences were targeted.

Among the sample of inflammatory Facebook ads highlighted by U.S. authorities, a well-funded Dutch startup and a Russian-listed payments provider were consistently identified as the companies that helped process payments for the posts.

In total, the committee released 14 ads. In the thirteen where payments data was made available, all were made using an online platform provided by QIWI Plc, a Russian operator listed in Moscow. 

These payments were then processed by Adyen BV, a fast-growing technology provider based in Amsterdam, and backed by Singapore’s state-owned investment firm Temasek Holdings Pte, which counts high-profile companies such as Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. as customers.

Adyen is also backed by Iconiq Capital, a multifamily wealth management firm that represents Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg as a client.

Qiwi spokesman Alexander Dzhabarov said the company didn’t "actively track payments on Facebook" and couldn’t "confirm or deny whether its payment services were used with respect to any specific publications." He also said the company’s service terms prohibited payments made for political purposes.

Facebook and Adyen didn’t respond to requests for comment.

There is no indication Qiwi or Adyen broke any rules, but the role of payments providers may bring into question whether they need to take into account the politics behind those using its platforms. It’s possible the providers could have been in a position to flag suspect transactions to social media companies or to have blocked the transactions altogether.

According to Adyen’s website, Qiwi’s eWallet accounts for 26 percent of all online transactions in Russia. 

Russian actors paid in rubles for ads on Facebook’s news feed, targeting niche groups across a wide span of the electorate, according to the most detailed disclosure to date.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.