GUEST POST: With Other Companies Wide Awake to the Problem, When is the Penny Going to Drop for Google?

This is a guest post from Volker Rieck, Managing Director of the content protection service provider FDS File Defense Service. 

WITH OTHER COMPANIES WIDE AWAKE TO THE PROBLEM NOW, WHEN IS THE PENNY GOING TO DROP FOR GOOGLE?

The ongoing debate on the accountability of internet advertising networks intensified abruptly and dramatically in the first half of 2017 after the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester.

How did this come about?

Hate speech and extremist propaganda are part of our everyday reality and can be encountered on countless websites. Journalists writing for The Guardian were aware of this. What they found surprising, however, was that websites and YouTube channels with blatantly radical, racist, anti-Semitic and extremist content not only exist, but also carry advertising served regularly by the behemoth Google that generates revenue for the site operators and content creators. The Guardian subsequently opted to discontinue its cooperation with Google as an advertising partner, presumably in order to avoid Guardian advertising appearing on such dubious sites or channels. The decision was made in full knowledge of the fact that this step could and would impact negatively on traffic to the Guardian website.

While this first move was hardly newsworthy in and of itself, other market players and advertisers soon followed the example set by the Guardian. Havas, a French marketing company handling advertising budgets of £175 million per year for clients from the United Kingdom, took the same step.

And then several British banks, the BBC and even the British government followed suit almost simultaneously. Google’s European boss Matt Brittin hurriedly supplied figures showing how many sites and publishers had already been banned after infringing Google’s terms, but his efforts were in vain: The Guardian needed a mere 15 minutes to identify a YouTube channel operated by an extremist cleric banned from entering both the UK and the US. It cannot be stated plainly enough: this man’s activities are being funded with money from Mountain View thanks to the advertising served to his channel by Google. Experts surmise – according to the reporting in the Guardian – that revenue totalling at least £250,000 has been paid out to him. Terror and hate speech as a business model. Brittin claimed that the sums involved had been “pennies not pounds”. All a question of proportion, then? The £150,000 Google is thought to have earned from its collaboration with this hate preacher is certainly small change in the context of Google’s overall turnover of billions. And perhaps the advertising budgets of the enterprises that have ceased using Google as an advertising partner are indeed only pennies to Google.

As ever, Google announced it was taking the issue seriously and promised to improve. But during Advertising Week Europe in March 2017 in London, Brittin could not or would not comment – even when asked for the third time – on whether Google now searches for dubious content itself or has simply outsourced quality assurance to the users of the relevant websites. His use of the word “community” suggests that Google is leaving it up to consumers to tackle the problem. In this view, it would simply be the “community” which has failed if Google advertising continues to appear on extremist sites. Google already applies this community principle rigidly on YouTube. Only when the volume of complaints from consumers reaches dramatic levels does Google take action. Why bother taking the initiative instead of simply waiting for consumers to identify dubious content of their own accord? But whether the “community” making up the target audience of a hate preacher with a website or a YouTube channel is likely to flag up material to Google seems rather questionable.

By now, the debate has also reached the US. Enterprises including AT&T, Verizon, PepsiCo, GM and Walmart have grown nervous about protecting their brands and intend to assign their advertising budgets without cooperating with Google in the future.

Is Google worried about its own brand being tarnished? Seemingly not; otherwise the company would hardly have verifiably displayed advertising for its Google Home product on Hezbollah’s YouTube channel . Was it simply a clever algorithm that identified Hezbollah’s readers as a target group for Google Home? One can only assume so. Any thinking human being would surely have ruled this channel ineligible for any form of monetization.

How Google intends to offer reassurance to big name clients even as it demonstrates such negligence vis-à-vis its own brand is a question only Google can answer. Apart from the major brands involved, the story also has a political dimension. After 9-11, US legislation made it unlawful for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to provide designated terrorist organizations with material support or resources. This naturally includes payments such as advertising revenue paid out to website operators. If Google has made payments to designated terrorist organizations or persons close to them, it can expect the US authorities to clamp down on this sooner rather than later.

The underlying issue here is not new. It has already been recognized for several years that Google funds websites with business models based on the infringement of copyright. If it had been possible to follow the money, MPA and GVU might have managed to shut down the site Kino.to much earlier. Google repeatedly suggests using the approach of following the money to combat piracy effectively, but this cannot succeed while Google refuses to hand over data on clients it maintains an active business relationship with as an advertising marketer. And this was the case with Kino.to.

Thanks to its two-way identification process, Google has both bank details and an address for service of process for every site operator participating in the Google advertising network.

Google is often quick to point out just how many websites it has as advertising partners; creating the impression that the number is too vast for effective monitoring to be possible clearly forms part of its strategy. Meanwhile in Europe, Facebook is discovering what European governments think of such arguments.

It should never be possible to argue on the basis of size. Imagine a car manufacturer claiming that producing ten million vehicles per year made ensuring the safety of brakes and on-board electronics in every case impossible.

Accountability cannot be delegated to machines – or, in this case, to algorithms – simply because people or enterprises have become habituated to relying on them. But this is exactly what companies like Google and Facebook are currently attempting to do. Anyone operating a business without adequate control over it has two options: bring it under control, or wind it up.

The time is now ripe for a fundamental interrogation of the question of accountability in the public space that is the internet: society is suffering severe collateral damage even as enterprises like Google or Facebook continue laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps the issue will be resolved without financial penalties such as the $500 million pay-out made by Google to the US Department of Justice in a case relating to the illegal advertising of prescription drugs by fraudulent Canadian pharmacies. Maybe this time the loss of advertising and consequent reduction in revenue and the wide discussion of the issue will be enough to persuade Google to shift its stance.

Volker Rieck

Volker Rieck is Managing Director of the content protection service provider FDS File Defense Service. His expertise in the area of Internet piracy is widely recognized. FDS regularly works on studies relating to issues around piracy. It also supports law enforcement authorities with its data.

About Dr. David C Lowery

Platinum selling singer songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; platinum selling producer; founder of pitch-a-tent records; founder Sound of Music Studios; platinum selling music publisher; angel investor; digital skeptic; college lecturer and founder of the University of Georgia Terry College Artists' Rights Symposium.