Google's extremist ad problem won't go away

EDITOR'S BLOG: As more advertisers pull out over extremist videos, the search giant refuses to accept that YouTube is an editorial product.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 28 Mar 2017

This hasn’t been a good week for Google. It started with advertisers protesting about their advertisements being placed around extremist material on YouTube. And now it has ended with the wrath of the Daily Mail whose front page splash - ‘Google - the terrorists’ friend’ - accuses the US tech giant of aiding the Westminster attack by facilitating access to online ‘terrorist handbooks’ via its search engine: ‘fanatics are urged to use cars before going on stabbing rampage in the guides… the vile manuals were online despite widespread warnings that UK jihadists use them for training.’ Even Boris Johnson's giving them the full bluster now. 

Just as well they dropped the ‘Do No Evil’ tagline a while back.

None of this is new. Google has been in the spotlight for this kind of thing for years. To date it has toughed-out the criticism but now it appears that it is hitting where it hurts most - in its pocket. Advertisers who have said they are pulling their material from YouTube were added to yesterday by Johnson and Johnson plus AT&T. Others in the UK who have pulled ads include HM Government, The Guardian, Channel 4, GSK and the ad agency Havas. This time it’s starting to look as if it has crisis potential.

It’s all very well Google saying, in its defence, that it adds 400 hours of video to YouTube every minute, but if it wishes to pursue the success of programmatic advertising - which is placed not by humans but via a global automated bidding system - then something is going to have to change.

In newspapers and magazines it’s always been the case that advertisers are most concerned about the context in which their ads appear. If, for example, an ad for a diesel-powered car appeared anywhere near an article about Dieselgate and the perils of oil burning vehicles and their noxious emissions, then refunds would be demanded.

Google has done everything it can to avoid having to make editorial value judgements about the content it pulls in when its search algorithm goes to work. It says that it's like the most highly skilled librarian at a copyright library of yesteryear, a place where all printed matter had to be lodged by its producer. The librarian might have found some of the porn or violence contained on his/her shelves distasteful, but the needs of unfettered academic research required that the material be catalogued anyway.  

When I met Matt Brittin, the EMEA boss of Google recently, he was ready for this question. His answer can be found here. It’s a complex and existential dilemma for Google, which is the creation of very smart, ideologically-driven, purist engineers - not politicians, social scientists or philosophers. They set out to create the ultimate search business and succeeded. I even wrote that Google is the most significant company created since World War Two.     

Google has traditionally gone with the purist argument that it just searches for, reflects and gathers rather than filters information from all over the planet. It is pretty efficient at dropping copyrighted material on Youtube, because it does not wish to lose revenue by being sued, but that’s a binary question with a clear yes/no answer. What it has decided it cannot afford to do is get into lengthy negotiations over material that may offend some individuals but not others. This is a pure can of worms.

Equally, it desperately doesn’t want to curate or edit, because this which would require a massive increase in costly manpower: even the most advanced algorithms cannot make the kind of subtle judgment calls that editorial decision making is all about.

How much of a presence, for example, do you allow angry Islamist thought? Just because you find their Arabic male voice choir singing and diving under barbed wire with an AK-47 a bit much. You cannot ban everything except the bland, reasonable Lib Dem middle way. And try finding a Lib Dem in Raqqa or Mosul.

(It’s worth noting that we were all in favour of social media during the Arab Spring as an instrument of liberation but when we all realised that some of those who rose up against oppressive regimes weren’t exactly in favour of Western-style democratic values we went cold on them getting together online.)  

So Google wishes to leave the moral judgement bits to the public themselves, partly because it fears that the purity of what it does would be compromised otherwise and partly because the business model just doesn’t work any other way. It wants to believe we are all grown up and mature enough to reach our own conclusions about what’s good and bad. This is fine except when you get perverted dupes like Khalid Masood picking up tips online about how to use a hire car as a murder weapon.  

Of course Google isn’t alone in being attacked for its lack of discrimination. At the same time this week when the events at Westminster took place, Chicago police were questioning several individuals on Wednesday who allegedly gang raped a teenage girl and broadcast the assault on Facebook Live.

The victim was a 15-year-old girl who went missing on Sunday and was found on Tuesday before being taken to a children's hospital for treatment. It was the latest in a series of grim incidents in which violent acts have been streamed live on Facebook, including two fatal shootings plus the kidnapping and torture of a disabled 18 year-old. What on earth is a site designed to share pictures of our kids with friends and relatives doing getting involved in this kind of thing?

It has to be said that at least Google is willing to engage in the debate while Facebook remains largely mute, preferring to promote the global vision of its founder Mark Zuckerberg in lengthy thought-pieces.

And both Facebook and Google do have rules. It’s noticeable that these rules are a reflection of strongly American sensibilities. Thus you’re allowed to watch humans being being shot, butchered and blown up but not being made. The US remains unbelievably coy about nudity and even finds breastfeeding hard to deal with.

Google is on the rack.  If it gives way on this and agrees to vet absolutely everything it digs up or hosts on YouTube it becomes like the BBC with the hugely expanded cost base and the mass of daily editorial dilemmas it faces – except with the added worry of advertising and where to place it. As an occasional broadcaster on the BBC I’ve been supplied with the Editorial Guidelines which I’ve been told to read, learn and inwardly digest. The ring-bound document is 368 pages long and is taken very seriously but does not prevent the Beeb being attacked by The Mail from the right which says it’s too gloomy about Brexit and the Remain camp who protest that it failed properly to challenge untruths peddled about the £350 million during the referendum campaign. It can’t win.

Finally, you don’t have to look far to discover the origin of The Daily Mail’s intense dislike of Google. The search giant has been progressively eating away at the Mail’s advertising base for years. They are both competing intensely for the same marketing budgets. The Mail led the charge when Google’s tax affairs came under scrutiny and went after the UK exchequer for not extracting enough money from Sundar Pichai and his shareholders. Meanwhile, of course, the huge success of the Mail’s behemoth of a website is largely down to its mastery of Google’s algorithm and making sure its coverage of the Westminster terror attack came first in the search list.    

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