Over the years, we've pointed out repeatedly a massive Achilles Heel for Google: its often dreadful customer service
. Trying to communicate with Google can often be like facing a giant white monolith
, rather than any sort of human being. More recently, we've been concerned about Google's willingness to be overly aggressive
in "enforcing" copyright, in an effort to keep Hollywood (and Hollywood's supporters in government) off its back. Combine those two issues, and you've got quite a story... such as the one from Techdirt reader Cody Jackson
A few years ago, Jackson, while deployed in Iraq, wrote a book about Python (the programming language) called Start Programming with Python
. He decided to give away the book for free, as a "thank you" to the open source community which, he notes, has provided him with tremendous value over the years. He has always made the book available for free, and linked to various sources where you can get it. At the same time, he's offered people the option to support him via donation. He also made a little bit of money via Google AdSense ads on his site.
Last week, he was contacted by a Google bot, telling him that AdSense had been disabled. Why? Because they claimed he was distributing copyrighted content illegally. The email, which I've seen, notes that his account has been disabled for the following reason:
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: As stated in our program policies, AdSense publishers are not permitted to place Google ads on sites involved in the distribution of copyrighted materials. This includes hosting copyrighted files on your site, as well as providing links for or driving traffic to sites that contain copyrighted material. More information about this policy can be found in our help center ( http://www.google.com/adsense/support/as/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=105956 ).
To be honest, Google's terms here make no sense
. Basically EVERY
website "contains copyrighted material." Based on what Google sent to Jackson, no one could link to any website if they wanted to run AdSense. Google has a number of really good copyright lawyers, but they must have let this one slip by. I'm sure Google means
"unauthorized" or "infringing" copyrighted material, but that's not what it says.
Either way, it seems ridiculous and serious overkill to suggest that any links to a site that carries infringing content -- even if the link is to legitimate content -- should be deemed a terms of service violation. The email provides one link as an "example page" of the kind of problems they're talking about. That page is the one where Jackson announces that he's put up a torrent of the 2nd edition
of his book, and points people to The Pirate Bay and Demonoid to get it. Remember, this is his own book, which he's published himself and is giving away for free... on purpose.
You could argue that Google's terms here are overbroad and perhaps they're within those rules. But saying that you can't link to legitimate content that you yourself released on the Pirate Bay could have a real chilling effect for those who choose to put their own works on such sites.
Jackson reached out to Google for more information, explaining to them the situation, pointing out that he's the author and publisher, and that the work is published under a Creative Commons BY-SA license
, and thus all copies on The Pirate Bay are perfectly legal and authorized. Google told him it would review the account... and then sent the following:
Thank you for providing us with additional information about your site.
However, after thoroughly reviewing python-ebook.blogspot.com and taking
your feedback into consideration, we're unable to re-enable ad serving to
your site at this time, as your site appears to still be in violation.
If you'd like to have your site reconsidered for participation in the
AdSense program, please review our program policies
(https://www.google.com/adsense/policies) and make any necessary changes
to your webpages. For more information regarding your policy issue, please
Confused about this after reading through everything and still not seeing any violation, he removed the links to the torrent files, even though it made perfect sense to him to keep them up. As he noted to me via email: "The torrent was one of the first ways that I had made my book available, since that is where the technical people are likely to hang out. I figured a torrent file on the most popular torrent site was a no-brainer."
So he, once again, responded to the Google bot, this time after removing the links... and he still got back the exact same message
. The current post (and, again, this was a post that Google specifically called out as an "example" of a problem page) still mentions The Pirate Bay and Demonoid, but has no links
(and even when it did have links, they were authorized!). And yet, Google's AdSense team still
insists that he's violating AdSense's inscrutable terms. They won't explain why. They won't seem to actually comprehend what he's saying. They just block.
For what it's worth, we hear from Google haters all the time that it somehow refuses to take down Ads on "pirate sites." This experience seems to suggest the exact opposite: that Google is overly aggressive in trying to block ads showing up in any way, shape or form, near sites that it has deemed to be problematic, even if the content is 100% guaranteed legal and authorized. Combine that with Google's horrendous customer service-by-bot, and you have an unfortunate situation where an author is being punished for doing something perfectly legal and can't seem to find a human at Google who will actually take the time to understand what's going on.
These are the reasons why we get so nervous when Google cranks up its "automation" at the insistence of Hollywood. The collateral damage is very real.