After heavy criticism in the UK and Europe, Google announced today that it has begun implementing some striking changes to its advertising systems.
According to a blog post by Philipp Schindler, the company’s chief business officer, the changes will make it easier for advertisers to exclude content they don’t want their ads anywhere near. They’ll also be able to exclude content across all their ad campaigns, and certain content will be excluded by default. Google, for its part, says it will take greater steps to remove ads from “content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories.” The changes will happen globally, and they’ll apply to both YouTube and Google’s larger ad network.
The move comes in response to a sizable protest in the UK and Europe. Last week, the Times of London published an investigation showing that ads for brands like L’Oreal and government agencies like Transport for London had appeared alongside offensive YouTube videos, such as those posted by David Duke or the far-right group Britain First. Dozens of companies, whole advertising networks, and the UK government itself pulled ads from Google in response. The company was summoned to the Cabinet Office, the agency that supports the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, to explain itself. A UK Parliament select committee wrote to Google to ask it to change its policies, saying it was “profiting from hatred” by displaying ads next to offensive videos.
The changes will broaden what’s excluded by default and expand what’s considered offensive— beyond inciting or promoting violence to include broader forms of discrimination. That could include individuals being discriminated against for their beliefs, or their socio-economic background. The company is also looking to improve automated tools to flag objectionable content more quickly, and hiring “significant numbers of people” to increase their reviewing capacity, according to the blog post.
These changes are significant for Google, not least because advertising dollars are their main source of revenue, and it is a massive source indeed. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported quarterly ad revenue of $22 billion in the last quarter of 2016. That said, this isn’t the first time Google has faced pressure to change its advertising policies: Last year, after “fake news” suddenly became a thing, Google said it was working to remove ads promoting fake news sites from its search results.
According to an internet analyst consulted by the Guardian, hate figures like white nationalist David Duke have made thousands of dollars from YouTube ads, though Google disputed that analysis. The concern from the advertisers’ point of view, and therefore Google’s, is less about racists making money and more their own “brand safety”—essentially, fears that their brand will be damaged by appearing next to offensive videos. Leveraging brands’ individual concerns has also been the tactic of Sleeping Giants, a campaign to pressure companies not to advertise on Breitbart.
However, several questions remain, especially about exactly what kind of content will be excluded by default—exactly how hateful does it have to be? Will Breitbart be excluded? What about Infowars? If that happens, should we expect (dumb, wrongheaded, annoying) cries that Google is harming free speech, or even an alt-right counter-campaign, as when Breitbart lost its shit at Kellogg’s after it pulled ads from the site? Google didn’t go into specifics, but noted that the new default setting will be more conservative than its current iteration.
Given Google’s heavy reliance on advertising revenue, and the astounding amount of money it makes off it, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the threat of so many huge brands withdrawing it prompted a response—although this is the second time in as many days Google has had to respond to widespread criticism of a policy. Pressure, it seems, works.
Update 3/22/2017 3:07pm EST: Recode reports that AT&T will pull its ads from Google’s “non-search platforms,” meaning YouTube and display advertising, despite yesterday’s promised changes:
“We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate. Until Google can ensure this won’t happen again, we are removing our ads from Google’s non-search platforms,” the company said in a statement.
When we asked AT&T if they would reinstate the ads after Google makes changes, a spokesperson declined to comment further.