Google's Gag Order: An Internet Giant Threatens Free Speech
Every once in a while in America’s consumer society, a company, product or service rises above its mere utility to achieve iconic status in the culture. Its very novelty, innovation, or just manufactured “cool” allow it to enter the daily American lexicon. As nouns, brands like Kleenex (facial tissues), Rollerblade (in-line skates), or Coke (any soft drink south of the Mason Dixon Line) are equated with an entire product category, eclipsing all competitors. Others achieve the even loftier status of verbs, as in “to Xerox.”
Google has joined this elite group of culture-changing brands. Starting with excellent technology, the company nurtured a cult following into dominance of web searching, a daily task now common to most Americans. Its IPO has become one of the dominant business – and social – news stories of the year.
Far more important to American society, Google's pervasiveness has given it a unique and privileged role as the information gatekeeper of the 21st century. “To Google” someone or something has become synonymous with using the Internet to find information, images or news. The New York Times has detailed the emergence of Google as an alternative to the traditional library for research. As individuals, businesses and publishers leverage its search, email and advertising tools to reach readers, sell products and assemble communities, Google is on the verge of becoming the Internet arbiter of the First Amendment.
As I learned this week, however, Google may be playing a darker, more sinister role in American society: corporate censor. On June 15, the Google Adwords team informed me that it had discontinued all advertisements placed by Perrspectives.com due to “unacceptable content” on the site that includes “language that advocates against an individual, group or organization.” As we’ll see below, this may or may not be blatant bias against liberal viewpoints. There can be no doubt, though, that the current Google editorial guidelines, evenly applied, would bar almost any newspaper, magazine, opinion journal, political party, advocacy campaign or even religious organization from advertising on its site. And that puts Google dangerously at odds with core American values of free speech and assembly.
Electronic Direct Marketing for the Masses?
How did Google come to pose a clear and present danger to free speech in the nexus where opinion and Internet direct marketing meet?
First, a little background. The Google Adwords program allows advertisers, large and small, to purchase and display small text advertisements in the right hand side of Google search results pages:
On its face, Google Adwords is a godsend for direct marketers, allowing them to display customized ads when users enter a specific keyword or phrase. (Perrspectives.com, for example, has run ads when Google users enter terms such as “democratic party”, “Enron scandal”, “Richard Clarke” or “2004 election.”) Advertisers pay “per click” rather than “per impression”, which means they are only charged when a Google user actually clicks through to the advertiser’s site. Even the smallest advertisers can specify how much they are willing to pay per click-through, as well as their daily budget. Just as important, Google Adwords provides real-time reporting of results, so advertisers can quickly see which keywords and ads are most effective, and make immediate adjustments, if needed.
The cost-effectiveness of Adwords for online stores, non-profits, specialty sites and even bloggers is extremely attractive. Since March, Perrspectives.com has used Google Adwords to bring thousands of visitors to the site. This makes Google’s sudden decision to drop Perrspectives.com all the more disappointing – and disturbing.
On June 15th, 2004 the Google Adwords Team sent me a notification that all of my four-line text ads had been discontinued due to “unacceptable content.” The ads involved included headlines such “The Liberal Resource”, “The Progressive Resource”, “Bill Clinton & More”, “The Real Enron Scandal.” The supporting text included expressions such as “analysis, commentary and satire”, “complete liberal resource center”, “caustic commentary”, and others.
As I learned from Google on June 16th, the issue was not the content of my ads, but of the articles and features on the Perrspectives.com site itself:
At this time, Google policy does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain "language that advocates against an individual, group, or organization". As noted in our advertising terms and conditions, we reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site. I have reviewed your site and it contains language such as 'secretive, paranoid and vengeance-filled' which we will not allow to run on our site at this time. [Italics mine]
In the same email, the Google representative graciously offered to provide me with help in censoring my own web site:
I understand that you would like to promote specific political opinions on your site. We are happy to allow you to run so long as these opinions do not contain language that advocates against an individual, group, or organization. I suggest that you remove these references from your website in order to run on Google. [Italics mine]
In response, on June 16 I told the Google rep that their decision to drop my ads had to be reversed due both to the specifics of my site and the broader issue at work. First, Perrspectives.com, while admittedly offering left-of-center content, is an independent, “equal opportunity” provider of analysis and commentary. For example, while the offending text cited by Google (“secretive, paranoid and vengeance-filled”) came from a piece harshly critical of President Bush (“The Smallness of King George”), other articles took on Democratic Party orthodoxy (“Identity Politics and the Threat from the Left"), John Kerry and John Edwards (“States’ Blights”), and Ralph Nader (“Unsafe and Any Speed”). Secondly, I noted that any assertions or claims made on the site, even ones using language as admittedly vitriolic as “secretive” and “paranoid”, were thoroughly supported in the text, usually with links to other articles, documentation or quotes. Just as important, readers are encouraged to provide feedback, even if it is negative. That Feedback link is on every page of the site
More than any consideration specific to Perrspectives.com, though, is the larger issue of de facto censorship and threat to free speech which must inevitably result from the Google Adwords “language that advocates against” standard:
The current Google Adwords editorial guidelines constitute selective censorship that cannot be justified or sustained. By these standards, virtually EVERY newspaper, opinion journal, political party/campaign and religious organization MUST be barred from advertising on Google.
As of June 20, 2004, I have not heard back from Google support or PR representatives, as I had requested. The complete email thread of communications with the Google Adwords Support Team is available here.
Arbitrary Guidelines, Selective Application, De Facto Censorship
Given the recent flaps over the apparent double-standard in prime-time advertising at CBS (running virulently anti-Clinton ads by the right-wing Citizens United, refusing to air ant-Bush ads by MoveOn during the Super Bowl), I was immediately suspicious of anti-liberal bias by Google towards advertisers. Doing a quick check, I found no shortage of conservative advertisers currently on Google that made me seem like Mother Theresa in comparison.
These following conservative sites, many of which are decidedly to the right of Attila the Hun, currently advertise using Google Adwords:
- Value Watch. This site advocates against Democrats, liberals and progressives of all stripes, and calls out right-wing bogeymen Ted Kennedy and Michael Moore by name. It most assuredly uses “language that advocates against an individual, group or organization.”
- Republican Gear. This site not only sells Republican political items, it sells items that "advocate against" individuals and organizations” including t-shirts with slogans like "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Democratic", as well as one picturing Osama Bin Laden stating "I Want You to Vote for John Kerry.”
- The Right Review. The Right Review also "advocates against" John Kerry, Democrats and the ACLU. It also includes a cartoon of John Kerry dropping his pants.
- The Conservative Index. This site calls John Kerry “scary” and calls him “duplicitous.” Perhaps among conservatives, those expressions are terms of endearment.
- Right Wing Conspiracy. This is apparently another home for right-wing fun and frolic.
- Michael Moore Hates America. Sounds like a site that "advocates against an individual" to me. Yet the Google Adwords team confirmed to a Perrspectives reader that Michael Moore Hates America does NOT violate the same editorial guidelines by which it dropped Perrspectives.com.
To give Google the benefit of the doubt, it should be noted that the Adwords Team does NOT review and approve ads prior to running them, instead checking them for after the fact for violations of its guidelines:
Regarding your complaint that other advertisers are running similar campaigns, our AdWords Specialists review all of the ads in our program. However, ads may run on Google before we check them. Therefore, you may see some ads appear for a short time on Google that do not comply with our guidelines. We assure you that we are working diligently to apply the same criteria to all of our ads.
This might explain why a large number of conservative, Bush-friendly ads appear on Google as well as the odd anti-Bush ad that appears. (It is worth noting, as we’ll see below, that Google similarly dropped the maker of the “Deck of Bush” playing cards parodying the Pentagon’s Iraq Most Wanted List.) This approach seems to suggest that Google is very susceptible to complaints, especially loud and organized ones, from its users.
It might explain Google’s apparently inconsistent application of its own editorial standards. Then again, it might not. Regardless of any bias that may be at work, this process shows the obvious flaws in Google’s approach: the number of ads and advertisers will dwarf the ability of their “editors” to monitor them. This only exacerbates the failings – and dangers – of the Google “advocates against” standard.
Google may not necessarily have a conservative bias in filtering advertisers, but it would seem to be blatantly sizeist. That is, large organizations, well-known brands, big-spending advertisers, both political parties and other high-profile groups get a pass on the “advocates against” standard. Left or right, secular or sacred, size does matter:
- The New York Times. In its June 15, 2004 issue, the Times published a column by Paul Krugman in which he called John Ashcroft "John Ashcroft is the worst attorney general in history." While music to my ears, that certainly is "language that advocates against an individual."
- National Review. This conservative magazine, which is advertised for sale on Google, has a section ("Kerry Spot") dedicated to attacking John Kerry in addition to its usual liberal-bashing fare.
- Republican Party. Search for “republican national convention” and you’ll that the Republican Party advertises for contributions using Google Adwords. GOP.com contains entire sections attacking John Kerry. No doubt the Democratic web site has mirror image content.
- John Kerry for President. The John Kerry campaign is also a Google advertiser. What is a generally a positive site advocating for John Kerry also debunks the Bush record and has video of anti-Bush ads.
- The American Conservative. Pat Buchanan’s magazine is another Google conservative print advertiser. One of the magazine covers shown on the site depicts George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld as "Pinocchios" with long noses. The cover article ("Pinocchio Presidency") uses the following language advocating against individuals and groups: “The Bush administration lied America into war, and the damage to our credibility will be long-lasting and grave."
- Christianity Today. This magazine has articles that, for example, attack gay Americans and pro-choice advocates. For an example, see "Sowing Confusion" by Watergate felon turned prison preacher Charles Colson.
- Washington Post and National Public Radio. Do a search for "Ronald Reagan". You'll find Google ads from both the Washington Post and NPR displayed. Both contain content and commentary not particularly flattering to the late President Reagan.
The implication for Google is clear. The even, consistent and fair application of its “language that advocates against” standard would mean the immediate removal of dozens of these and similar advertisers. That’s not good for Google, for the Internet or for us.
Complaints about Google are not new. Most have concerned the impact of changes to Google search algorithms on the order in which search results are displayed. Getting bumped “below” the fold or to page 2 of search results can have a dramatic and adverse effect on visits, leads and sales. As real as those issues are, though, they do not touch on a core societal value like free speech.
As it turns out, Perrspectives.com is by no means the first advertiser to run afoul of Google’s editorial guidelines. Ironically, a quick Google search of "censorship google adwords" revealed many others.
Not all involved the same “advocates against” standard. Google Adwords ads from a gun dealer and a vendor of Nazi memorabilia were shut down, in a replay of the discussion over offensive or dangerous material eBay earlier lived through. Interestingly, while sites offering firearms and Nazi trinkets were dropped, some porn sites apparently passed muster with the Google Adwords editorial board.
Several others Google advertisers suffered the same fate as Perrspectives.com. Nitestar, which offers the “Deck of Bush” joke playing cards, had its ads terminated on the same grounds of “advocating against” some person or group. In May, they issued a press release ("Google Adwords Censors Ad Campaign Critical of President Bush"); as of this writing, they are still unable to resume advertising on Google. An independent filmmaker also had ads dropped, as did a web poet. The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick had a run in with Google over commentary regarding actor John Malkovich. Workers trying to unionize at Wal-Mart had a similar experience. The site Unknown News had its ads restored by Google, only after a long correspondence establishing that their views against the Iraq war were not inherently against any person or group.
From the above, it is clear that Google Adwords’ editorial guidelines are having a chilling effect on free speech. Intended or not, Google is stifling free expression and imposing de facto censorship with its dangerously vague “advocates against” standard. By definition, Google’s standard is unevenly and unequally applied, as ads are reviewed only after the fact and on an ad hoc basis. Thousands of web sites are foreclosed from using a tool that competitors and perhaps more ideologically acceptable alternatives can leverage to reach customers and readers.
Google has a well-earned reputation as a progressive and friendly brand. To maintain it in this case, it would seem Google has two options: (a) drop hundreds of current advertisers through the consistent application of its rigid and overly broad prohibitions, or; (b) revise its standards to limit only those advertisers advocating violence, whose products are inherently dangerous or whose content appeals to prurient interests. Political opinion of any stripe would be protected; ads regarding guns, terrorism, or pornography would not. (For a complete proposal, see "Don't Be Evil: A Google Freedom of Information Act."
Of course, Google is not the government; as a commercial entity, it does not have the obligation to respect all speech constitutionally protected under the 1st Amendment. Google is, however, one of those rare corporate brands that cross the world of business into mainstream culture. That status brings both precious commercial benefits and real social responsibilities. Google has simply become too central to Americans' ability to speak out, recruit the like-minded, sell products and build businesses. One role Google must not be allowed to assume is that of 21st century censor.
Help save free speech and help save Google – from itself. Contact Google today!
UPDATE (7/26/04): The Google Adwords Team has reversed course and restored Perrspectives ads. Perrspectives, however, will not resume its Adwords ads until there is clarification as to whether the Google "advocates against" editorial standard has been revised.