Google AdSense's Idiotic And Hypocritical Morality Police Force Us To Remove Ads On News Stories

from the morally-pointless dept

Google’s Adsense1 team has apparently decided that it is the morality police and that this 2012 story we wrote, about a lawsuit involving a porn star and the rapper Bow Wow, is somehow improper and a violation of Google’s high moral standards. The story involves no nudity or porn. It’s about how the porn star Katsuni (aka Celine Tran) was suing Bow Wow because a video for one of his songs used a bunch of video clips — allegedly without permission — from a music video by a different band (Electronic Conspiracy), which included video of Katsuni pole dancing. We noted it that wasn’t a copyright case, because Katsuni doesn’t hold the copyright, but rather she filed a publicity rights claim over the use of her image in the Bow Wow video. In other words: it was a fairly standard Techdirt news story on a legal dispute involving intellectual property. We embedded the two videos, which seemed rather important to demonstrating how the videos were similar — the key issue at play in the lawsuit. We further noted that there was no nudity in either video, but they did show pole dancing, which might not be entirely safe for work, depending on your workplace environment.

A week ago, we received an email from the AdSense sales team, forwarding an email from the AdSense “policy team,” saying that the ads on this page violated AdSense’s policies, and that we had three days to stop monetizing the page or our account would be shut down. The specific concern was that AdSense’s policy includes this:

Google ads may not be placed on pages with adult or mature content. This includes, but is not limited to, pages with images or videos containing:

  • Strategically covered nudity
  • Sheer or see-through clothing
  • Lewd or provocative poses
  • Close-ups of breasts, buttocks, or crotches

We immediately appealed the decision, noting the ridiculousness of the claim. It was clearly a news story, not “adult” content. One of the videos in question was even hosted on YouTube and had Google ads enabled on that video. In fact, we’ve since discovered that both of the videos in question are on YouTube and have Google ads. You can see the original video here and the Bow Wow video here. Both of them are monetized by YouTube with Google ads. And yet, somehow we’re the ones violating Google’s policies?

We got back a short note yesterday, telling us that our appeal was rejected and we needed to remove ads from that page immediately. Here was the entire explanation:

It looks like the video in question is fairly suggestive (ie there is a picture of a stripper pole) . I would not consider this instance a false positive, please ask the publisher to stop monetizing.

Note the vague standard being used: “fairly suggestive.” And also the impeccable level of scrutiny employed: “looks like.” Yippee for such a data driven analysis.

Again, this was on a news story about the copying between the videos, and the very same videos are found on YouTube where they are both monetized by Google’s ads. Furthermore, it’s not as though Google shies away from ads involving strippers. Here’s a Google search I just did (which I may now need to explain to my wife, should she look at my history):

So, what possible purpose does this serve? Since we weren’t set up to deal with deleting ads on specific pages like this, we had to have two people waste much of their time yesterday figuring out how to remove ads from a page that got less than 50 pageviews over the last year, just to please the ridiculous morality police at Google AdSense, who have a problem with a news report embedding a video that they themselves are monetizing on YouTube.

To put it simply: this is idiotic. Yes, Google has the right to make its own decisions about what it will allow ads on, but you would hope that there was at least some common sense employed. While we (thankfully!) aren’t reliant on these ads as our main source of revenue, the whole situation is ridiculous. You could see how other news sites might even change their own reporting to avoid having to deal with such ridiculous and arbitrary policies from Google’s nameless morality police.

For our part, we’ve actually been hard at work for a couple months now on some new sponsorship opportunities that we’re increasingly hoping would let us do away with display advertising altogether. Before this we thought maybe the two could co-exist but, frankly, I’d love to just dump AdSense from the site outright at this point, given this sort of intrusion. If you work for a company that would like to be loved by our community for helping us to get rid of display advertising altogether, while also providing great content to a great and engaged audience, contact us ASAP. Alternatively, for individuals, feel free to support us over at the Insider Shop, where we’ve got some lovely items and services for sale.

Separately, because people will likely bring it up, about a month ago, a story made the rounds about a big conspiracy within Google to cut off AdSense users after they’d accumulated a fairly large amount of revenue due, allowing Google to then keep that revenue. The story seemed far-fetched, because even just some quick back of the envelope calculations would call into question how such a program could possibly make sense. Google would be cutting off revenue earning partners to “steal” one month’s worth of revenue? How could that possibly make sense? Either way, Google quickly and convincingly denied the whole thing. And it’s unlikely our situation has anything to do with that story, anyway.

That said, Google is somewhat infamous for arbitrarily cutting sites off with little to no warning or explanation. There are tons of reports of people who suddenly had their AdSense accounts shut down with basically no recourse whatsoever. Just a week or so ago, the company Free Range Content (disclosure: which provides the “Repost.us” syndication technology we use on our site) filed an interesting lawsuit after having its own AdSense account shut off. The details of that story seemed particularly bizarre. Free Range Content had actually noticed odd behavior with the account itself and alerted Google to the issue, specifically noting that its revenue seemed way too high for the given period. Someone on Google’s AdSense team agreed to meet with Free Range Content, but two days before the meeting the entire account was shut down, and Google refused to give any explanation or present any recourse at all. At least we were given a heads up and a (absolutely ridiculous) reason.

Given stories like this, you can certainly see why people get so frustrated and fearful about the power that Google potentially has. Just the fact that there’s an implication that we should change what we report on just to keep ads on our site seems immensely troubling. The fact that Google’s AdSense policy team stood by the decision after we appealed suggests a broken process. While it seems likely this is a case of sheer and utter incompetence rather than malevolence, you can see why some people fear companies like Google.

1. A little background on Techdirt and AdSense: While we had experimented on and off with Google AdSense over the years, a few years ago we completely took them off the site (2011, I think), in part because of another ad relationship we had, but also because we found the performance to be abysmal. Just a few months ago, a sales team at AdSense made a very aggressive push to get us to start using it again, insisting that the performance would be much better and sending over “predicted revenue” that was significantly higher than we were getting at that time. We were skeptical, but also frustrated and annoyed with our existing ad provider, who all too frequently let through awful and obnoxious low quality ads (that we had to have someone monitoring constantly to remove), despite promises to keep them off our site. After running some tests, and realizing that Google clearly was very much overselling what AdSense could do, we still agreed to switch, in large part because the other solution we were using was so bad, we figured even if the payouts were similar, at least the experience would be marginally better. The terms of our deal forbid us from revealing how much we make from AdSense, but it’s really not that much. We’re basically covering our bandwidth bills. We’re not making any profit from it at all, but we’ve kept it around to keep from flat out losing money on our hosting bills.

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Comments on “Google AdSense's Idiotic And Hypocritical Morality Police Force Us To Remove Ads On News Stories”

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62 Comments
Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Over the past few years it’s been made clear that this blog isn’t any more “fair and balanced” than Fox News. He is mocked just as they are.

Really? Mocked by whom?

I know that The Trichordist and it’s dozen or so loyal sycophants do, but who else?

And for a site you claim is without influence and that is so readily mocked, Techdirt’s million+ monthly page views seem to dispute that.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Wow, mocked by Congressional staffers involved in IP issues! That must keep Mike awake at night!

Are we supposed to be surprised that the people involved in pushing bad copyright laws at the behest of deep-pocketed content providers would be critical of people publicly shaming their actions?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Well, yeah, the ‘mainstream’ or incumbents in power are not interested in more government transparency. They are not interested in removing all the corruption and back door dealings that the government is involved in. They are interested in scamming the public for personal gain. So of course they look at anyone that criticizes them for this negatively. But why should I care?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You really don’t need to be so obvious when displaying your ignorance, but you do bring up a very funny image.

Mike says, “Mike, I’d like to talk to you. Your Fanboyism with Google has gone too far. Your fired.” Mike responds, “Thanks, that’s a load off my mind, now where the hell are those two Tim’s and what’s the next story?”

Ryan Jones (user link) says:

yup

I’ve gotten several notices about some sites of mine because the user comments contained profanity and Adsense didn’t like them. I had to implement a swear word filter in my comments just to continue running ads.

Seems to me simple “show this ad on pages with adult content or profanity” check boxes for advertisers would solve this issue while not hurting Google’s bottom line.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Probably not the best idea, given you’d dropped their ad service before for being so lousy, and only recently picked it up again because the one you had been using was also terrible. Talk about incentive to shop around and look for a better service to sign up for.

Hopefully you can find a decent replacement, one who isn’t interesting in dictating morals to you and throwing hypocritical fits over what you write about/display on the site.

Anonymous Coward says:

the worse thing about Google is that when it does something, no one is given the chance to ask why or what those involved have done wrong. Google thinks of itself as being the dog’s danglies, just like the entertainment industries, and that it can do whatever it likes, at any time, for any reason and the rest of us is supposed to just go merrily along regardless of how we are affected! it’s seriously about time that Google got off it’s high horse! sooner or later, it’s going to be asking all of us to back it because the USA Congress wants to do so-and-so which will encroach on Google more than anyone else, but we will be expected to care. the way i feel about Google and the stupid escapades it carries out is get going boy, there’s others out there!!

jameshogg says:

Here’s what I predict:

– Google via YouTube, once they have enough power, will start offering very shitty streaming deals for artists – music, film and game alike – in exchange for copyrights, in an attempt to get as many copyrights as possible. Or all the studios will tactically negotiate with Google.
– Google become far more ready to police infringing content that IT holds the rights to – not just within themselves, but any puny alternative website out there that doesn’t have the same power that they do and cannot defend themselves against the lawsuits.
– The supposed enemies of copyright embrace copyright and really do take a dangerous stab at the internet’s foundations.
– MPAA and RIAA start praising Google for being such admirable copyright defenders.

And then the copyright believers will have got what they always wanted: central power to strike down anything and everything that infringes, even the slightest derivative.

MPAA and Google may be enemies now, but I fear a pact a-brewin. A merge between them would be disastrous.

I really don’t think the Google Fiber revolution will succeed in any sense. Just because they offer such powerful speeds does not mean they will GIVE such speeds. Just look at the monopolistic ISPs of today.

You think corruption stops with ads? They’ve yet to become far more corrupt than you can imagine.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Google's impenetrable wall

One of the annoying things about Google operations is that the people behind it seem to consider themselves too important to play nice with the entire rest of the Internet. Let me give you an example.

Every domain that sends or receives email is required to have a working “postmaster” address, e.g., postmaster@example.com. I mean “required” in two senses: first, it’s in RFC 2142 and RFC 5321 and its predecessor RFC 2821 and its predecessor RFC 822 which dates back to 1982 and the late, much-missed Jon Postel. Second, everyone expects this to work: it’s been not just a de jure standard, but a de facto best practice FOR OVER 30 YEARS.

Now try using it at Google. For extra credit, try using the other role account addresses (e.g., abuse, webmaster and others, see RFC 2142) and see what you get. Is it a cogent, well-reasoned, technically sound response that indicates that the recipient read what you wrote, performed any necessary research, took any necessary actions, and summarized both for you?

Google is not some cash-starved organization trying to get by with a severely limited budget and a skeleton crew. They have enormous financial and personnel resources. They could afford to implement this with their spare change — and they should, because that’s what responsible, professional entities do.

(Sometimes when I point this out, the counter-argument is made that their “abuse” mailbox would overflow. My response to that is that if your operation is emitting so much abuse that inbound complaint volume is overwhelming, then you have bigger problems than you think and maybe you should unplug your operation from the Internet until you get a firm grip on it.)

Anyway, my point here is that trying to engage human beings at Google, peer-to-peer, has proven to be exceedingly difficult — so it’s not surprising to see a laconic, formulaic, nearly completely useless response from their AdSense people. It’s what they do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google has a long history of cutting sites off of adsense because they were making too much money. Given its poor customer relations in trying to get anything done in dealing with Google, it is amazing to me that anyone still agrees to use them.

Personally I refuse to let advertisement on this computer. Even with it’s proclaimed watching ads, over the years, time and again, malware has been distributed through their system just like any other.

It’s a security matter and until it is cleaned up to where it doesn’t happen at all, it will remain this way on my computers with no ads displayed. I notice that if I get malware, no one from Google nor any other advertiser sends someone over to straighten out my computer. Nope, the whole thing rests on me taking care of it. So it’s a matter of self protection.

John Cressman (profile) says:

Google is the DEVIL!

Good is the devil. While once nice and benevolent, they are now nothing more than the evil corporation they tried so hard to set themselves apart from in the early days.

I am one of the people who had his AdSense account banned for some idiotically explained non-reason. It didn’t really bother me, because I wasn’t really making much money from it… but still, the odd and arbitrary decisions remind me too much of the Nazi-like Apple App store and it’s contradictory and haphazard app rejections.

Mr. Oizo says:

Now that is what I am talking about

This article basically summarizes some of my complaints about Google, yet 2 days ago I was the troll ? How weird. Anyway, thanks for posting; also thanks for sharing that your revenue also sucks (as does mine, tot the point that I will not be running ads anymore either).

Anonymous Coward says:

What if the DOJ is forcing Google to do this, similar to how the DOJ forced Citibank to close down the bank accounts of adult entertainers.

If Google’s Adsense policy also states rules against gambling and firearms, then there’s a good chance the DOJ is manipulating Adsense policy. Similar to how they dictate the policies of most financial institutions, such as banks.

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