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Don't Be Evil: A Google Freedom of Information Act

July 12, 2004

2004 could be a big year for Internet search giant Google. Its IPO will be one of the biggest crossover business, technology and social news stories of the year. The launch of its Gmail service could put the company in the forefront of web-based email services while creating a major new revenue stream. Its pervasiveness among users (“to Google”) and advertisers alike could make Google a likely candidate to join those lofty iconic, market-defining brands like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke, and Rollerblade.

Or not.

Instead, Google’s business practices could put it in a different category of American companies altogether, firms with names like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia. No, Google has not broken the law, but for many of its fans and followers has done something even worse. Google has violated its own corporate creed of “Don’t Be Evil.”

In arbitrarily and dramatically limiting its readers’ access to opinion speech on the Internet, Google has demonstrated a disturbing lack of social responsibility. It’s not too late, though, for Google to do the right thing. To restore its reputation and return to its users’ good graces, Google will need to take some dramatic and very public steps. Let’s call it a “Google Freedom of Information Act.”

Google Doing Evil

As previously reported in “Google’s Gag Order”, Google is on a collision course with its advertisers and free speech on the Internet. Its uneven, arbitrary and after the fact application of its “advocates against” standard has led Google to drop a wide range of long-time Google Adwords advertisers, including Perrspectives, The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, workers trying to unionize Wal-Mart, the environmental group Oceana, an anti-Bush political novelty site, and a host of others.

Google states that its editorial guidelines feature a provision allowing it to terminate advertisers whose sites feature “unacceptable content” including “language that advocates against an individual, group or organization.” These criteria are not applied at the time advertisers submit their Adwords ads to Google. Instead, the Google Adwords team reviews some ads and advertisers on an ad hoc basis only after the ads are already running.

The result is inevitably uneven treatment of Google advertisers: the left-of-center Perrspectives is dropped; mysteriously, is not. And size does matter after all. The opinion speech of The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Republican Party, John Kerry for President, Christianity Today, The American Conservative, and others is just fine with Google. In any event, the vague “advocates against” standard and its seemingly random and post-submission application make Google advertisers extremely susceptible to the organized protests of people or groups with a political agenda. Evenly applied, Google’s standard would result in it having to drop hundreds of advertisers, including every newspaper, magazine, opinion journal, blog, political party, campaign, and even religious organization.

GFOIA: The Google Freedom of Information Act

Google, of course, is neither the government nor a “common carrier.” It has no obligation to respect the constitutionally protected speech of its advertisers. But as the Internet’s de facto gatekeeper to readers, customers and communities, Google has a social responsibility to be an honest, fair and transparent broker, not a 21st century censor. If not, actual governments, in the United State, the European Union and elsewhere might take matters into their own hands.

To “not be evil”, Google must perform a delicate balancing act. First, it needs to balance the needs of its readers with those of its advertisers. On the one hand, Google should provide its readers with the broadest possible range of information, speech and products, without alienating users’ sensitivities and community standards. On the other hand, Google must provide its potential Adwords, Gmail and Adsense advertisers with clear and concise editorial standards that are equally applied regardless of the partner’s size or viewpoint. Google must also balance different international standards, as its experience with Nazi memorabilia, the Church of Scientology, and China show. And for Google, the ultimate tightrope walk is to avoid any bad publicity that could impact its much-hyped IPO.

More than anything, Google must provide transparency to its users, advertisers and business partners. Whether the issue is search rankings, advertising relevancy, ad placement, or “acceptable” site content, the global Google community must know in advance how both Google’s automated tools and human decision makers will impact them.

Fortunately, Google can navigate these turbulent waters and turn a growing customer and public relations morass into a victory for all involved. This Internet “happy ending” will require new editorial standards, changed advertising processes and the active involvement of Google’s users and advertisers worldwide. Call it a “Google Freedom of Information Act.”

The Google Freedom of Information Act (GFOIA) has four components:

1. Move to a “Clear and Present Danger” Editorial Standard

As should be clear by now, Google’s “language that advocates against” standard for advertisers is vague and dangerously broad. Evenly applied, today’s policy would require Google to bar thousands of current and potential advertisers. Applied in the piecemeal, ad hoc process as it is today, Google creates the perception of bias, unequal treatment, and de facto censorship while leaving itself vulnerable to manipulation.

Google can remedy this situation by moving to a new, clearer editorial standard. The “advocates against” policy should be replaced by a narrower guideline barring as advertisers only those sites that (a) offer products which are inherently dangerous; (b) advocate violence against individuals or groups; or (c) appeal solely to prurient interests. Such a “clear and present danger” standard would still allow Google to refuse advertising from gun dealers, pornographers, and terrorists. And while protecting community standards, Google would provide access to the broadest range of opinion speech across the political spectrum.

2. Approve All Advertisers Prior to Ad Publication

One of the greatest strengths of Google advertising programs also makes them ripe for subversion and the perception of arbitrariness. Unlike television, radio, print and virtually all Internet media, Google allows marketers to begin running advertisement almost immediately. Because advertisers and their ads are not screened prior to submission, web sites can see instant, same-day results from ads placed on Google. Editorial review occurs only after the fact in a process that dramatically lags the number and timing of new advertisers. That’s where bias, real or perceived, arises.

This “post facto” process should be changed. Google should move to approving all advertisers prior to publishing their ads on Google sites and its distribution partners. For example, Google could implement a 24-hour waiting period for advertisers (whose sites would be reviewed by humans) while still using automated tools to screen inappropriate ad text. This is no doubt a painful compromise: Google would have to invest in new editorial staff while advertisers would lose the benefit of “instant marketing.”

3. Create Regional User and Advertiser Advisory Boards

Google can quickly turn disgruntled users, advertisers and business partners into its biggest cheerleaders through actively engaging them in the process of creating its editorial standards. Google should publicly recruit a cross-section of users and advertisers to Editorial and Advertising Advisory Boards. These regional groups (mirroring Google’s North American, EU, and other operations) would be adjuncts of the Google organization, and provide feedback on and input into the Google editorial policies. These advisory boards could also be used for consultation in escalating more controversial cases of perceived censorship.

Google’s Advisory Boards should do more than lend the stamp of legitimacy and transparency to its policies. Advisor slots should be substantive, much sought after, and fun. Virtual, electronic meetings and reviews could be supplemented with annual face-to-face meetings. As is common throughout the software industry, these informal advisory boards could be compensated with Google logo items, program discounts, or small annual honoraria.

4. Publicize the GFOIA Effort

To gain the full PR benefits of its Freedom of Information Act efforts, Google should aggressively publicize its turnaround on free speech issues. Press releases and briefings should stress the company’s ongoing commitment to doing “no evil” and that Google’s growth naturally leads it to continually reexamine the needs of users and advertisers. Google could solicit advisory board members through the promotion of an online submission process, including opportunities to provide recommendations and suggestions. Google could also publicly announce and profile some or all of its advisors, contingent of course on privacy protections the advisors themselves might choose.

Today’s Google is, as George W. Bush might say, an “evil-doer.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. By defining new, narrower editorial guidelines for advertisers that still satisfy user standards, by approving those advertisers in advance of ad publication, and by creating an Editorial Advisory Boards from among its reader and advertisers, Google can repent for its free speech sins. And by showing real social responsibility, Google could do more than not being evil; it could actually do good.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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