GOOGLE THREATENS TO DEFUND TECHDIRT? Where Are All The Politicians Complaining?

from the hello?-anyone?-hello?-bueller? dept

OH NO. GOOGLE MUST HAVE ANTI-TECHDIRT BIAS! THEY’RE THREATENING TO DEFUND US! Or not. A couple of weeks ago, we received yet another notice from Google that some of the pages on Techdirt violated its AdSense policies (AdSense is Google’s program for putting ads on 3rd party pages). We’ll get to what those pages were and what the complaints were in a moment, but the timing struck us as ironic — as it came a day after we had written about why Google sending a similar notice to The Federalist was not some conspiracy of “anti-conservative bias” to silence them. Yet, when it happened to the Federalist, a bunch of big name politicians and commentators went into overdrive attacking Google.

So my question: where are they now defending Techdirt? Hmm?

The background: a few weeks back there was a bunch of attention paid to a misleading story from NBC claiming that Google had banned the Federalist from its ad program — The Federalist, of course, being a laughable propaganda machine promoting the president’s messaging, no matter how ridiculous it makes that site look. So, immediately, a bunch of people jumped onto the claims that this was yet more evidence of “anti-conservative bias” by Google and an attack on a website that supports the president. A bunch of politicians jumped onto the grandstanding train, starting with old friend Senator Josh Hawley who sent an angry letter demanding answers from Sundar Pichai:

Google?s decision to threaten the conservative publication The Federalist with removal from the Google Ads platform?based on, apparently, the contents of its comments section?is startling, but apparently just the latest instance of Google?s long pattern of targeting any perspectives that deviate from its preferred party line.

Of course, as we explained in our article, we periodically get similar notices. In fact, we’ve talked about them since as early as 2014. We got another in 2015. Oh, and in 2016. Oh right, and in 2018 and 2019. Amusingly, those last two involved Google demonetizing our article on the impossible choices involved in content moderation!

As we noted last year, the notices to us — just as in the case of the Federalist — were sometimes (not always) about finding the content in our comments problematic. Google is often not clear in their messages on this, and in the past, we’ve often had to go back and forth with Google before they admit that the problem might be in the comments, though they refuse to ever say which comments. As we said then, and we’ll say again, this policy is stupid. But it’s not “anti-conservative bias.” Google is free to make stupid policy decisions (just as we’re free to mock them for it). It does that all the time. And, recognizing the impossible nature of content moderation, you can even understand the logic behind how this came to be, which has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-conservative bias.” Instead, I’m sure, advertisers (or possibly just random people) have probably complained about ads appearing “next to” sketchy content. So, Google’s ad team writes up some rules that say “you can’t put our ads next to ‘derogatory’ or ‘sexual’ or ‘shocking’ content.” And then content reviewers don’t have time to go investigate — and they can’t determine the difference between if the bad content is in the comments or in the story. The policy just says “nope, not allowed” and whenever Google becomes aware (usually through reports) of such content, it says “you can’t put our ads there.” Even if the content is in the comments.

Anyway, that brings us to our latest batch of “demonetized” stories. Literally the day after we wrote about the Federalist getting a similar notice, Google said the following list of stories could not have Google ads, and gave the following reasons:

Look at all that conservative content defunded! Oh man, Josh Hawley’s gonna be so mad. I’m really looking forward to his letter on our behalf. Oh… wait. I’m being told that Hawley only sends such letters when it lets him grandstand on a fake cause unsupported by actual facts… darn. Anyway, if you look at some of those links, you can probably guess why Google decided it didn’t want ads on those pages, and in other cases, it’s not clear at all, and there’s probably some weird comments in there. Google doesn’t tell us, and it’s too much of an effort to figure it out. But, when it happens to us, it doesn’t become a huge story.

Of course, plenty of others grandstanded away on behalf of the Federalist too, and I’m sure they’ll come to my defense. Right? Right? Here’s another of our favorite Senators, Marsha Blackburn:

“Beware the power of Big Tech to cancel conservative voices,” she says. I’m sure her tweet about Google canceling my voice is going to be on fire. “Google chokes off ad revenue to silence conservatives!” And me! And me! Come on, Marsha, speak up! What about me? Silence? Huh. How about that?

Here are Tom Cotton and Jim Jordan talking about how this means Google should lose 230 and that it’s against free speech. I’m looking forward to their statements in support of Techdirt.

How about House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy. He’s asking “When will Big News and Big Tech #StopTheBias?!” And I agree. When will they stop the bias against smallish tech/law/policy focused websites that report on this stuff. When, Rep. McCarthy, when? I can’t wait for you to get to the bottom of this!

Even the president’s silliest son got into the fun, saying that the “GOP Senate needs to wake up & IMMEDIATELY subpoena and haul in the CEO of Google for questioning,” adding that “Google is an out of control monopoly, with a leftwing political agenda, engaging in a clear campaign to silence dissent. It’s election interference, full stop.” I’m excited to hear what he thinks of the [checks notes] “election interference” of Google stopping ads on our site for our story on [double checks notes again] why people should support the protesters who are burning police cars. Or, really, that story about fair use? Yes, clearly election interference. Come on, Donnie Jr., Techdirt craves your support.

Or how about Meghan McCain. Okay, this one’s a bit unfair, because she’s married to the founder of The Federalist, so maybe she’s maritally required to spew nonsense about her husband’s site, but I assume she believes in equal treatment, right? So I assume she’s going to claim that Google’s notice to us is also “digital fascism” intended to “completely” ban “all conservative speech.”

Meghan, I await your support of us on your next TV appearance.

Even FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr got in the game, claiming that Google’s decision to do what it’s been doing for years is… an argument for Section 230 reform?

I’m quite sure that Brendan will come to our defense. Right?

Or, maybe this is just yet another example of the impossibility of doing content moderation well, and because the same thing that impacts tons of other sites all the time finally hit a site like The Federalist it makes news. It’s not anti-conservative bias, but just yet another example of how difficult it is to do any form of content moderation at scale, and a recognition that this kind of thing impacts tons of sites. Do I wish Google was better at this? Yup. Do I wish they’d give us more information than what we have above? Sure thing. They don’t say which content in particular caused the complaint. They don’t have much of a functioning appeals process (there is one, but it’s limited).

But the fact that all of these political folks immediately jumped to these silly misleading grandstanding position suggests that if there’s any “bias” out there, it’s their own in leaping to false conclusions and using that to push for policy outcomes they’d like.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what we’re doing about this notice from Google? The answer is nothing. Nothing at all. Google will remove ads from our page, and we’ve got some vague threatening language about how now we might get lower quality ads, and there’s always the threat that Google will remove ads entirely from our site. If that happens, that’ll happen and we’ll deal with it. But, that’s my job as the publisher of the site, and I certainly don’t expect any politician to come out demanding they help Techdirt. Except Josh Hawley. I’d really like to see Josh Hawley do it. Just because.

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Companies: google, the federalist

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Comments on “GOOGLE THREATENS TO DEFUND TECHDIRT? Where Are All The Politicians Complaining?”

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36 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
aerinai (profile) says:

Fake Outrage = Free Advertising

Sometimes I think these politicians just fake this outrage to promote their donors’ businesses. It is a pretty good plan. After 30 congress critters start using its twitter handle and sparking ‘outrage’, I can guarantee that more people went to the site just to check it out.

Anonymous Coward says:

I forwarded this to Josh Hawley, and said I expect to see the same level of outrage that he displayed for The Federalist…

So expect him to totally ignore it, as it doesn’t fit his ‘only conservatives are silenced…’ mindset (and to admit otherwise might finally overwhelm the cognitive dissonance in his brain, resulting in it actually exploding…)

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Joshua Jones (profile) says:

Cloudflare Attention Required!

I just like how the calls for removing section 230 protections from such-and-such website is almost never anything to do with whether they should be held liable for any content posted by another user, and is always just about wanting to see the site punished in general for doing something disliked.

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Koby (profile) says:

Weaponized Policies

As I remember, there was a companion to The Federalist – a site called Zerohedge that went along with the original reporting. It looks like Zerohedge got completely banned. Also, it looks like The Federalist’s recourse in order to stay monetized was to take down their entire comments section.

But back to the original reporting — done by NBC, it appears that the NBC reporter Adele Fraser collaborated with an outside group called CCDH to complain to Google and enact the ban.

All of this appears to be different from the Techdirt experience. For Techdirt, there was no media tweeting out the ban with glee, no sitewide demonetization, and the comments section is still very much in operation. This is exactly why we know there is a bias at the major big tech corporations. If you say the right things, Google will hold your hand and make it okay. But if you’re not politically correct enough, then the sites’ policies will be used as a weapon against you.

I guess maybe we should all switch to Brave browser. The complaints of malicious moderation versus mere incompetent moderation could all just disappear.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Christenson says:

Re: Weaponized Policies

That google or anyone’s policy can be abused and weaponized is without doubt. That it can then be cajoled with sweet words is also without doubt. We all have our biases, so do the platforms.

And, in a free country, google should be free to choose not to do business with anyone, for any or no reason. The exceptions to that involve Title II common carriers and some kind of natural monopoly. Think trucking.

The real difference with techdirt thumbing their nose at Google is they have a financially supportive community and they have decided they are not too concerned if they lose direct ad revenue. Federalist, not so much, so choices had to be made.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Weaponized Policies

There is no nose thumbing at google here.. Refusing to grovel to google or bend for them maybe. The nose thumbing is at the people who are whining and crying so hard when they get the same treatment.

To google: You don’t own us
To the federalist: Suck it and stand on your own feet princess.
To people complaining about anti-conservative bias: Get real.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

I think the reason many conservatives are mad at Google playing pick-and-choose with their aggressive demonetization campaign is because of America’s laissez-faire approach to the internet for the past 40 years. The very same lack of intense (and I qualify it here, "intense") government regulation over content on the internet is precisely what made service providers like Google so successful.

And, the existence of Section 230 is what enabled Google to amass large sums of advertiser money, immune to lawsuits over its users’ content, both on Google and in their subsidiaries (example: YouTube). As a publisher on both the web and YouTube, I am well acquainted with AdSense’s strict guidelines regarding placement of ads, the way you can name them, and what you can call them (you can’t call Google Ad units misleading things "Featured Content" or "Special Deals", you can’t encourage users to click on the ads, and in most cases you can’t even draw attention to them).

In 2017, YouTube had the adpocalypse. The adpocalypse, broadly defined, was the mass demonetization of YouTube partners for content it deemed as unfriendly. Some of the demonetization process was done by humans, but mostly by robots, and you probably know as well as anyone the keywords targeted people of color, LGBTQ+, as well as people discussing controversial subjects such as depression and mental health. The things that caused apocalypse to happen was a range of things, but off the top of my head it was Logan Paul going into a forest and filming the body of a man who hanged himself, Elsagate, those damn annoying text to speech videos of the news, and whole TV shows and movies being reuploaded by people other than the companies that made them. That was one thing. Google owns YouTube, YouTube hosts the content and YouTube has the right to take it down.

With AdSense, the frustration is that publishers now must police their own content, in addition to that of their users, so that their revenue streams aren’t hurt. You’re right, there is no Section 230 being broken here since legally they aren’t going to be in trouble for the content. But with money being a way to fund the website, it does go a long way to keeping it up. That’s why publications like the Federalist are upset.

I also get that certain advertisers might not want to be on there, and leverage their current ad campaign budget with Google as a reason to not have it on there. Advertisers who are doing that "Stop Hate for Profit" campaign must be saving millions because they don’t have their dollars going to Facebook. And all because of a little social pressure, Section 230 intact.

I think the reason publicly-funded organizations like NPR cut off its comment section is because they didn’t want to dedicate the staff to sort through it, or risk a nasty comment causing some philanthropic organization to pull their funding for a NPR member station. Many news sites are restricting comments to paid subscribers or members, although they cite staffing reasons versus pressure from advertisers as the reason.

For what it’s worth, I hope TechDirt never takes commenting anonymously away. I’m no politican, and I may not always agree with the arguments in every article, but I’d defend your coverage any day and praise the heavens for the fact you don’t run intrusive ads.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Rep. McCarthy: "Free speech isn’t just what you agree with."

That’s rich coming from him and his R-tagged colleagues.
Unless he meant something like "Free speech is just what I agree with."

In any case, he’s right, but it sure sounds pretty hypocritical coming from his side.
Republicans are not the only ones guilty of this, but it’s definitely more prevalent in their party: they want to control and often censor the speech of others, but they are the fastest to cry about "free speech" when their own expression is being moderated, downgraded or even just criticized, totally ignoring the irony of wanting to prevent others’ "speech" simply on the basis that it’s a critic of theirs.

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