Senator Richard Blumenthal Is Mad At Google Again; This Time Because It Can’t Magically Stop All Scam Ads
from the that's-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
Senator Richard Blumenthal has been attacking the internet while demonstrating his own ignorance of how technology works for basically as long as I can remember. He did it back before he was Senator, when, as Attorney General of Connecticut he was eager to blame Craigslist for ads on its site. It appears that Blumenthal has learned nothing in the intervening years other than that if he blames tech companies for bad things their users do… he gets the headlines he so desperately craves. In the latest example, the Washington Post obliged and gave him his headline, claiming that Google is “still failing to clamp down on ad scams.”
This is based on a letter that Blumenthal has sent to Google, angry that the company has allowed some scammers to get their ads onto the site. Blumenthal seems quite angry.
Troublingly, Google has routinely failed to address dangerous scams, impersonation, cybercrime, and other fraud on its extensive advertising network. For example, The Markup published an investigation in May 2021 into fraud impersonating government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service. In response, Google removed the impostor ads and acknowledged the violations. However, a search for the exact keywords in the article once again returns the same deceptive ads. In another example, while Google claims to restrict ads for weight loss programs, searches for terms like “weight loss teas” are still filled with ads for dangerous “detox teas,” including laxative teas, which pose potential long term health risks. These recurring examples suggests that, while Google claims certain rules in principle, in practice these policies often appear to be dead letter law.
Except, all this really demonstrates is a near total ignorance of how any of this works. Google’s ad system is designed make it easier for anyone to purchase ads. That’s a key part of the benefit of the system, because it makes it much cheaper and easier for small businesses to buy ads that can reach a large audience. This has been incredibly useful for tons of small businesses, which otherwise would have had no equivalent platform to advertise their goods and services to a willing market.
And, so, yes, some scams are going to get through. That’s the nature of the system. Contrary to the claims that Blumenthal makes in his letter, Google does not have incentives to have scammy ads on their site. Quite the opposite. Scammy ads don’t help Google or its users, and make users a lot less willing to ever click on any ad on Google’s site.
But the issue, which Blumenthal might understand if he actually cared to talk to experts rather than just grandstand, is that content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. Some scam ads are always going to get through. That’s the nature of an automated platform at the kind of scale Google operates at.
Blumenthal highlights that using the same keywords that were exposed before, his staff found similar scammy ads, so some people may ask: “well, why doesn’t Google just have someone do that same search every day?” And, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that for a variety of reasons. First off, if they’re searching for those keywords, then that takes away from searching for other keywords — and other keywords may actually lead to even more scammy ads. No matter what, there are tradeoffs, and this is where the scale thing comes into play again: you can never search every ad at this scale. It’s literally impossible.
Google has lots of systems that try to detect scammy ads, and chances are their systems are actually good at catching a very large percentage of them. But scammers don’t just sit there and give up. They keep trying and trying again and adjusting. So if, for example, Google just blocked all ads on those keywords, it would create other problems. For one, it would limit the legitimate ads that would use those same keywords. But, it also wouldn’t stop the scammers, because they’d just keep adjusting and trying new ways to get their ads through.
Now, some people will argue that if Google can’t review every ad, then its system should be changed. And, you can make that argument if you want, but recognize what it actually means: it means that only the largest, wealthiest companies would then be able to advertise on Google, and small businesses, startups, and others would be completely shut out of the ecosystem. It would also massively drive up the cost of ads on the site. The cost to Google of having to carefully vet each ad would be quite a lot, and Google would have to turn around and build that into the ad price on the site.
Again: the real blame here should be on the scammers. And for all the huffing and puffing about Google allowing scam ads through, one could just as easily turn that around on Blumenthal: why hasn’t the FTC and local and federal law enforcement arrested all the scammers yet? After all, isn’t it their responsibility to stop the scammers?