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.