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