Google's Arbitrary Morality Police Threaten Us Yet Again; Media Sites Probably Shouldn't Use Google Ads

from the looking-for-alternatives dept

Two years ago, we wrote about a ridiculous situation in which the morality police who work for Google’s AdSense team threatened to kill our account because they saw that their ads were being displayed on this page, which has a story (from 2012) about a publicity rights claim involving a music video using footage of a porn star without her permission. The story was quite clearly about the intellectual property issues at play, but the AdSense team insisted that since the still image displayed from the embedded video showed a (clothed) woman pole dancing, it violated their policies on “adult or mature content.” We protested and AdSense rejected our protest, insisting that the still image of the pole dancing violated their policies. Never mind the fact that the same exact video was hosted on Google-owned YouTube where it had Google’s ads enabled…

For what it’s worth, this happened just months after we had started using Google AdSense, after representatives from that team put together a big effort to get us switch from the other ad provider we’d been using at the time.

We had hoped that after that incident the AdSense team would have, perhaps, rethought some of its practices. No such luck. Last year we wrote about another case, not involving us, but where Google started threatening the site Antiwar.com for posting the infamous photos of US soldiers mistreating prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. After that story started going viral, Google’s AdSense team backed down — but apparently they’ve done little to fix their processes.

In the last two weeks we’ve received two notices of violations from AdSense, each of which seems more ridiculous than the other in some way, and which has us reconsidering our use of AdSense as a media property, as Google fails at distinguishing between reporting on bad things and celebrating those same things. In both cases, the “violation” involved a post that was many years old, so it’s unclear why Google suddenly discovered them. In both cases, the posts were basic reporting on something that had happened, and no rational and reasonable person would conclude they violated any policy that AdSense has. And, yet, in both cases, Google claimed they violated its policies, and threatened that if we were unable to sort through the 64,000 other posts on Techdirt to weed out the ones that somehow violate Googles bizarre and arbitrary morality police policies, we risk losing our account.

The first was about a post from 2010, involving a lawsuit concerning assisted suicide. As we noted in our short post on it, there was a legal question about whether or not its illegal to tell people how to commit suicide online. Because while there are laws against assisted suicide, the guy was basically arrested for merely telling people over the internet they should commit suicide, and that seems like protected First Amendment speech. Thus it was an interesting legal question worthy of debate (our post received 60 comments, suggesting many folks agreed). So what could possibly be wrong with that? Well, according to the AdSense team:

Google does not allow the monetization of content that may be sensitive, tragic, or hurtful. While we believe strongly in the freedom of expression and offer broad access to content across the Web without censoring search results, we reserve the right to exercise discretion when reviewing sites and determining whether or not we are able to provide a positive user experience delivering contextually targeted ads to a site with this type of content.

In short, Google AdSense requires some sort of special trigger warning setup, whereby we need to turn it off on any article that someone might consider “sensitive, tragic or hurtful”? Does that mean no AdSense ads are allowed on stories about the shooting in Orlando this weekend? Is that really the official policy of Google’s morality police? Sure, I could see that Google might not want to have its ads on a site associated with telling people how to commit suicide — but obviously that’s not what our story was about at all. The fact that the morality police working for AdSense can’t seem to tell a journalistic blog post about a legal dispute from a site advocating for assisted suicide (which really doesn’t seem that tragic or hurtful in the first place) is fairly ridiculous.

The second complaint, received over the weekend, is about a post from 2012 concerning the band Death Grips’ decision to just give away its album after its label, Epic, had tried to shelve the album. It’s an interesting story highlighting an all too standard dispute between musicians and a record label, with a somewhat unique solution by the band. So, what could Google possibly be complaining about here? Are you ready for this?

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

  • erotic stories or descriptions of sexual acts
  • sexual jokes
  • erotic or sexual forums
  • sexual or profane terms in the URL
  • crude language or excessive amounts of profanity

Going through the article, there doesn’t seem to be anything like that in our post. What it almost certainly refers to, however, is that we discussed one of the reasons why Epic may have decided to shelve the album release, which is that the band wanted an album cover that was a photograph of an erect penis. We did not post this image, but we did link to it — along with a clear “NSFW” warning. We didn’t even describe what was in the photo, other than implying obliquely that it may have something to do with male genitals. Other than that, the post contains no profanity or sexual language (there are some curses in the comments, but I don’t see how that could count).

Once again, any normal, living, thinking human being should be able to look at such a post and recognize that it’s a blog post/news story about a newsworthy event, rather than some sort of sexual forum with crude language. But, alas, no such luck — we’re told that we violate AdSense’s apparently random policies, and we’re at risk of losing our account.

Oddly, on the first notification, we were told that Google automatically turned off ads on that page on their own (though telling us we should explore the rest of our pages to see if there were similar “violations.”) On the latter one, Google was not as proactive, instead demanding that we figure out a way to disable ads on that specific page ourselves.

Now, Google is a private company that obviously has the right to choose who it wants to do business with and how it does business, but this seems particularly ridiculous. This does raise questions for us as a media property and whether AdSense is compatible with news reporting. We shouldn’t have to worry if the Google morality police might randomly show up at any time to insist we’re violating its rules by actually reporting on newsworthy stories.

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Comments on “Google's Arbitrary Morality Police Threaten Us Yet Again; Media Sites Probably Shouldn't Use Google Ads”

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66 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The perils of automation

These examples are really nothing more than the inevitable result of over-automation. It is a variation on Lessig’s observation that “code is law.”

At a minimum, good automation must include easily accessible and highly responsive ombudsman-type service to apply well-trained human judgment. But when you are as big as google you lose nothing by skimping on the human judgment because there are hundreds of millions of other customers to take the place of people who are unfairly judged by the system. Handling the occasional corner case that doesn’t fit automation rules isn’t worth the effort.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google does not allow the monetization of content that may be sensitive, tragic, or hurtful.

Time to take everything offline Google, your very existence has become tragic. These terms are intentionally obtuse and only means that you intend to stifle those you do not agree with plain and simple as much as you can possibly get away with. Like passive aggressive insults, they really are insults an any one with wisdom knows it.

While we believe strongly in the freedom of expression and offer broad access to content across the Web without censoring search results, we reserve the right to exercise discretion when reviewing sites and determining whether or not we are able to provide a positive user experience delivering contextually targeted ads to a site with this type of content.

Like, ox-moronic, hypocritical, paradoxical?

Every bit of this sounds just like, I am not a racist but….

PRMan (profile) says:

Call the marketing team

At every IT shop that I’ve ever worked at, the sales/marketing team is king. Anything they want, they get.

You know those people that convinced you to switch? Call and e-mail them and tell them what’s going on. And if they don’t fix it, you’re turning them off and going with someone else. That will get it fixed faster than anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Call the marketing team

PRMan is correct. These are the people who can resolve this problem to TechDirt’s satisfaction. The PC Police you’ve been dealing with are not going to work with you. They’ve made their decision and it won’t hurt them if you quit AdSense but it will hurt the sales people.

Whatever says:

One look at the “band” post and I found not only did you link to the penis picture, but also to a reddit group that might have also provoked Google.

More importantly, reading through the comments and such, there are also terms like “fuck”, “screw” and “penis” on there. You have to remember that by Google’s guidelines, you are not only responsible for your initial post, but any comments you permit to be published on that same page. Taken as a whole, you may have enough naughty words on that page (after a few years) to just barely tick over the “erhmegerd porn!” warning system.

As for the other post, consider this extract from a comment on the page:

“Here are some examples of ILLEGAL things to say:
I want you to kill yourself. (a generic statement urging a person to kill themself)
I want you to commit suicide. (a generic statement urging a person to kill themself)
I want you to go into a closed garage, and run your car until you die of carbon monoxide poisoning. (a specific statement urging a person to kill themself including how do to so)”

Taken out of context (ie read by a bot) it could be considered something else.

Time for you to send them a nastygram pointing out your section 230 protections! Quick!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“One look at the “band” post and I found not only did you link to the penis picture, but also to a reddit group that might have also provoked Google.”

So? Why should linking be objectionable as long as it’s correctly labelled?

“More importantly, reading through the comments and such, there are also terms like “fuck”, “screw” and “penis” on there.”

So, just like a conversation with you. So, are you agreeing that Google should censor over comments made by others on the site, or are you demanding that Techdirt start to censor for naughty words? Either way, you seem to be on the side of censorship of comments here, which is interesting given your incessant whining about imagined censorship elsewhere.

“Taken out of context (ie read by a bot) it could be considered something else.”

Agreed, these things really should be vetted by humans before the threats are sent out.

“Time for you to send them a nastygram pointing out your section 230 protections! Quick!”

Nastygram? Even when stating that Techdirt should correctly describe a factual position, you still imagine some kind of malice. Are there any psychologists here? This seems like a very interesting state of delusion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Whatever seems to have a hard-on for anything that might make anti-piracy easier. Notice how he complains loudly and proudly against anything that might protect user information such as encryption.

He lives in a world where he’s a special little snowflake and everyone else who doesn’t fall under his prissy standards is a dust speck to be swept away.

Fortunately for him, he doesn’t, because he behaves like a dreck.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

As we noted in our short post on it, there was a legal question about whether or not its illegal to tell people how to commit suicide online.

Why is this even a thing? I mean, you hear about people committing suicide in various ways all the time. I bet anyone who makes watching TV or movies even an occasional practice already knows a half dozen essentially foolproof ways to kill themselves anyway. Should people who write/direct/produce/brodacast such works be arrested?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

More likely its some bot where results might be viewed by a human.

Human likely sees results listed something like this:
“Site links to , is this an acceptable picture? Yes/No”

Google does not have time to review context and barely has time to review content, with most of these articles years old I get the impression that Google is 4 years behind on reviewing anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

sales/marketing team is king

business is king everywhere in this great land of ours.

i’ve worked projects at cessna several times – and i have great respect for cessna – but i’ll never forget the day i found out the people who order screws and washers there have numbered parking spaces up close to the door and people who design their airplanes don’t.

hij (profile) says:

Putting the dirty in techdirty

What makes this interesting is that recently I have begun to rethink my use of techdirt as a way to quench my thirst for naughty pictures. I may be a bit premature in reconsidering the way I use techdirty.

(Also, I hope my choice of words here does not get you into any more trouble. I tried as best I could to make this the least saucy post possible.)

Gracey (profile) says:

[Now, Google is a private company that obviously has the right to choose who it wants to do business with and how it does business, but this seems particularly ridiculous. This does raise questions for us as a media property and whether AdSense is compatible with news reporting.]

So … have you actually read their policies? It does seem ridiculous to most people, but even linking to “prohibited contents” is a violation.

Having been a reader of this site for ages (a supporter at one point … need to do that again) and a forum regular at AdSense, I can tell you … TechDirt appears to have much more leeway than the average publisher does. I could pick out dozens of violations if I wanted to, and many more in the form of comments (for which publishers are responsible as well).

AdSense is pretty much influenced by what the advertisers want, and what they complain about.

A lot of news/reporting type sites run into issues with AdSense. Whether you decide to keep it or not usually depends on whether the adjustments are worth it for the publisher.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

–even linking to “prohibited contents” is a violation.

The thing is, how can a news site discuss topics if they are prohibited from linking to external items related to the topic?

I think there is a huge difference between a news site that links to the occasional NSFW pic (when needed for context) vs a porn listing site that links to nothing but NSFW pics.

The problem here is that the policy only concerns itself with content not context.

Gracey (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

[I think there is a huge difference between a news site that links to the occasional NSFW pic (when needed for context) vs a porn listing site that links to nothing but NSFW pics.]

Yes I would think so too. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. People complain. Notices get sent.

[The problem here is that the policy only concerns itself with content not context.]

In some cases that particularly true. I’ve run afoul of it with the word “naked” (as in “naked genius” or “naked tree”) and ads would not show on that page no matter what. That was the “bot” that crawls. It didn’t like that I had a word related to adult content.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’ve run afoul of it with the word “naked” (as in “naked genius” or “naked tree”) and ads would not show on that page no matter what. That was the “bot” that crawls. It didn’t like that I had a word related to adult content.

Even if it were specifically referring to humans not wearing any clothing that would not necessarily be adult content, which makes it even dumber.

Gracey (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You’d think not huh?

But of course, they own the service and most advertiser’s don’t complain about ads on Google’s own search results. They actually pay a hefty fee for it, so I’d guess the rules for those advertisers (which are outside of the publisher network) are probably a lot different than for the advertisers whose ads appear on the publisher network.

When you own a company, you tell employees what they can or can’t do at work but I doubt you tell the CEO what they can or can’t do.

Gracey (profile) says:

Re: Sell your soul to the company store...

Not much I can to that. What did you think would happen though?

Google exists to make money. Not to be 100% altruistic. If they were, they wouldn’t be able to provide relief funds for disaster responses; they wouldn’t be able to provide advertising for charities … they wouldn’t be able to take on publishers all over the world. They wouldn’t be able to develop things like eye implants, or provide internet service to very remote people, or many of the other good things they do. You think all of this doesn’t cost money?

And no, I don’t particularly agree with everything Google does, nor the way they sometimes to do it.

But, if someone can do it better then I hope someone does.

Anonymous Coward says:

Someday will learn

Opinion
Someday perhaps this site will appreciate the bigger picture, that Google (when it serves it’s interest) does some good things but those few and sparse little media moments are projected to us to create an image, a narrative that they don’t do evil.

Google is a business, it’s worth more than most states and many nations and, in my opinion, it got that way through aggressive tactics and very well paid and well placed lobbies and Google placed Government officials who, in my opinion, kept the anti-trust and regulatory bodies out of their business dealings.

Mike, I like your writing, your insight, I agree with pretty much most everything you post but regarding Google, in my view, you’ve had and still have some blinders on to what it represents to the world, from consumers, to nation states to developers to industries.

I don’t want you to eat any words, or acknowledge any other view point, I simply hope that you can travel the world a bit more, perhaps France as a good starting point to gain a greater perspective and understand how Google impacts so many countries, so many individuals and industry and again, in my opinion, should never be praised but always, always viewed through a skeptical lens.

Why isn’t adwords considered a monopoly?
Start with that question, look at how many sites have google code embedded in them, absolutely rely on Google for ad sales, for getting their sites placed in their search rankings, for analytics… and ask the question again, then again, and again until a more complete perspective is gained. Google is a business, is embedded in too much of the internet and this blog post is a testament to that.

Just my opinion…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Someday will learn

The Anti-Regulation nut everyone has been hating for the past couple of days will side with you.

Google is RIPE for a solid anti-trust case. I do not agree with throwing the term “regulation” around like it is some kinda of cure because all it does is invite corruption.

Google needs to be broken into several smaller businesses where one provides email, another provides content, and another provides search features.

While I am very anti-regulation I am very PRO Anti-Monopoly and Anti-Trust law! We need no other form of regulation that I can tell. And I think I am the only one making this very important distinction.

You have begun to see exactly what I have been seeing for a while already. And this problem is not just with Google. Many people are blind it all.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

"Any normal, living, thinking human being"

Um, Mike?

This is Google we’re talking about.

I can’t believe I’m the first to point this out, but Google is an AI company.

Almost certainly the notices were generated by an AI algorithm that read the posting and/or followed the links.

“no rational and reasonable person would conclude they violated any policy”

Of course. But probably no person made any such conclusion.

Just think about how many ads they host, on how many websites. Do you really believe they have human beings checking them all for content violations?

They can’t possibly.

There are two Googles:

* Google the AI
* Google the corporation that builds and maintains the AI

JMT says:

Re: "Any normal, living, thinking human being"

I don’t know why you think Mike doesn’t understand all of that already, or why that makes any difference. Just because this is the result of using an algorithm (calling it AI is going a bit too far…) doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be criticized for it and the topic publicly discussed. The more this is discussed the more likely Google will improve their policies and algorithm, and/or (more likely) people will switch to competitors that will grow as a result.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

Forget the sites they’re hosted on, many of the Adsense ads themselves violate Google’s policies. They don’t eat their own dog food.

Google has no problem serving up those shady/scam ads on my web sites. I have to sift through them and block them one-by-one, which I don’t think even Techdirt does. The really huge media sites serve up whatever the fuck adsense gives them.

So I think this shit works both ways, and I think Google is in for a major disruption soon, if it isn’t happening already. They seem to be having an issue with the “don’t be evil” sign in their lobby–if it’s still even there.

The best thing about being a blogger / running web sites is not having a boss. That’s a HUGE draw. But Google is kind of like a boss since that’s how many people choose to monetize their sites. And now they are starting to act like that douchebag boss we can all picture in our heads.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

The reason Google is making an example of a site like Techdirt is that they can’t afford to alienate any of the really massive web sites which make up their core business, but yet they still need to show their advertisers how strict they are. Look at these high standards! We put 1,567,213,656 sites on notice!

You can’t exactly whip the prince for getting the stable girls pregnant. The townspeople are outraged. So you find a whipping boy to show them you’re all about justice. That’s what I believe Google is doing.

Google plays both sides, which to me is an ethical conflict of interest. They are basically just middlemen.

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